(ORDO NEWS) — In the past few years, forest fires have flared up around the world on a scale that is rarely experienced by modern humanity. In 2020, wildfires in the western United States burned more than 10 million acres, killed at least 43 people, and caused $16.5 billion in damage.
Australia’s Black Summer, a devastating fire season that began in late 2019 and continued into early 2020, has destroyed an estimated 4.4 million acres on the continent, directly killing at least 34 people and causing damage to billions of animals.
By 2100, the likelihood of unusually intense fire seasons in any given year will increase by 31-57%, depending on the rate of global climate change. This follows from a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme, which also says that by the end of the century, the annual number of forest fires around the world could increase by 50 percent.
An increase in the number and frequency of wildfires will exacerbate global warming by releasing carbon stored in trees. This will create a vicious circle in which climate change and wildfires reinforce each other.
Already, wildfires cost governments billions of dollars, contribute to poor health, and claim hundreds of lives every year. These impacts are expected to worsen, the report says, as a combination of rising temperatures and mismanaged forests will lead to monstrous wildfire seasons.
Wildfires will not only continue to grow in intensity and frequency, the report warns, but will also begin to break out in areas where there have been no fires for millennia.
Even the Arctic – a region that has historically been too wet and cold for large wildfires – could start hosting large fires regularly, as it did in 2020 and 2021, as global warming transforms permafrost and peat bogs from damp, fire-resistant areas. in flammable boxes.
“Climate change is causing wildfires to become hotter and longer lasting in places where they already occur regularly,” said Grist Hugh D. Safford, co-author of the report, a former Forest Service ecologist and research faculty member of the California Department of Ecology and Policy.
University at Davis. “But they start to flare up where it’s unexpected,” he said, citing the recent Indonesian peatland fires as an example. The report says fires could also occur in the dry regions of East Asia, the central US and the deserts of South America.
Part of the projected fire risk that the UN report refers to has already been built in. “Even with the most ambitious efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will still experience a sharp increase in the frequency of extreme fires,” write more than 50 experts from research institutes, government agencies and international organizations around the world in the report, which is the Program’s first attempt at on the environment to assess the extent of the global wildfire crisis.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. On the contrary, the report shows that there are actions governments can take now to reduce the risk of future fires.
The first and most important step that countries can take is to spend more money on fire prevention – practices such as thinning forests to keep trees from crowding together and clearing bushes and other fuels from the forest floor by burning or mulching them. – instead of directing all their resources to fighting fires after they start.
The world currently spends about two thirds of its wildfire resources responding directly to fires when they break out. Only 1% of fire-related spending goes to planning and prevention, the report says. “The biggest problem is that we are almost entirely in a reactive rather than a proactive role,” Safford said.
For example, The US Forest Service still spends about two-thirds of its budget on firefighting, when it would be more cost-effective to put more resources into managing forests before they start burning. “It begs the entire Forest Service budget,” Safford said. “And the paradox is that this increases the likelihood of catastrophic consequences in the long run.”
In addition to directing more money and personnel to preventive activities such as prescribed fires, the report encourages governments to work with other countries and indigenous peoples who have hundreds and thousands of years of fire management experience.
Ultimately, the report recommends the creation of an international standard for forest fire management, which will be the result of joint cooperation and problem solving between countries that regularly deal with fire. Currently, countries often turn to each other for help in extinguishing fires. The authors of the report want countries to work together before the fires break out.
Some countries are already beginning to think about a more collaborative approach to dealing with forest fires. Authorities in Australia and California have asked Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans, respectively, to help manage the landscape.
The report also calls on governments to invest in fire behavior research and mapping so that firefighters have more information about fires and fire services can allocate resources more wisely and efficiently.
The stakes are high. If the world doesn’t start thinking about better fire management, public health, water quality and entire ecosystems could deteriorate further in the coming years, especially in low-income countries where there are few resources to rebuild communities after disasters.
Fires could even lead to the emergence of new zoonotic infectious diseases like COVID-19 as they push animals out of their natural habitats and bring them closer to where people live, the report says.
The question for Safford is whether governments will start planning for wildfire control in a timely manner to limit the damage.
When will the moment come when we will burn so badly and kill so many people that people will finally say: “Fire is inevitable; we need to learn how to live with it, and we need to learn how to manage ecosystems that are resistant to it”?
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