Wildfires are getting more extreme and burning more land. The UN says it’s time to ‘learn to live with fire’

The number of extreme wildfire events will increase up to 14% by 2030, according to the report’s analysis. By 2050, the increase will climb to 30%.

Even with the most ambitious efforts to slash heat-trapping emissions, the report shows that those near-term consequences are locked in.

Although the situation is dire and that eliminating wildfire risks is impossible, communities can still reduce their risk and exposure, said Andrew Sullivan, principal research officer with Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and editor of the report.

“Uncontrollable and devastating wildfires are becoming an expected part of the seasonal calendars in many parts of the world,” Sullivan said at a Monday news conference. “Where wildfires have historically occurred, they may increase; however, where wildfires have not historically occurred, they may become more common.”

Wildfires affect every aspect of society including public health, livelihoods, biodiversity and the already changing climate. UNEP researchers, including over 50 experts from universities, government agencies and international organizations around the world, say the report serves as a “roadmap” for adapting to a burning world.

The changing pattern of wildfires

Fires have always served a vital ecological purpose on Earth, essential for many ecosystems. They restore the soil’s nutrients, helping germinate plants and remove decaying matter. Without fires, overgrown foliage like grasses and shrubs can prime the landscape for worse flare-ups, particularly during extreme drought and heat waves.

Burning parts of the land on purpose has historically prevented larger, more destructive fires. Indigenous people have been applying this preventative method, known as controlled or prescribed burns, for thousands of years.
A firefighter battles flames during the Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods area of unincorporated Madera County, California, in  September 2020.

But as humans warmed the planet, developed more land and created fire suppression policies while neglecting forest management, wildfires have become more deadly and destructive than ever before.

These factors, according to the UNEP report, drastically changed the fire regime.

Wildfires now burn longer and are becoming hotter in places where they have always occurred; meanwhile, fires are also igniting and spreading in unexpected places, including wetlands, drying peatlands and on thawing permafrost in the Arctic.

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“What is eye catching is that there are ecosystems now that start to burn that we did not expect in that intensity,” Tim Christophersen, head of the Nature for Climate Branch at UNEP, told CNN. “For example, there’s a lot more wetlands which, as they’re called, you would think that they don’t catch fire easily. We see more and more fires also in the Arctic Circle, where fires are naturally rare.”

Wildfires, which are often ignited by lightning strikes or human activity, are becoming more frequent because of human-caused climate change. Scientists found, for instance, that climate change made the extreme weather conditions that fueled the 2019-2020 destructive fire seasons in Australia 30% more likely to occur.
Additionally, a recent study found that high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountains are burning more now than any time in the past 2,000 years. In the last two years, wildfires in the US West were exhibiting extreme fire behavior and wafting smoke across the country while also creating their own weather.
A hazy San Francisco skyline is seen from Dolores Park in September 2020 as more than 300,000 acres burned across the state.
Fires are also increasingly harming public health. A recent study found that the annual exposure to wildfire smoke results in more than 30,000 deaths across the 43 countries analyzed in the study. Another study found that increases in fine particulate matter from wildfire smoke in 2020 led to a surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in California, Oregon and Washington.

Wildfires have also become more costly. In the US, the UNEP report noted data from the National Interagency Fire Center that shows that average annual federal firefighting costs have skyrocketed to $1.9 billion as of 2020 — a rise of more than 170% in a decade.

Researchers say governments aren’t learning from the past, and they are perpetuating conditions that are not environmentally and economically beneficial for the future.

“The world needs to change its stance towards wildfires — from reactive to proactive — because wildfires are going to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change,” Christophersen said. “That means we all have to be better prepared.”

A shift in thinking

The report predicts that the likelihood of intense events, similar to those seen in Australia’s so-called Black Summer wildfires in 2019 and 2020 or the record-setting Arctic fires in 2020, will increase by up to 57% by the end of the century.

And because of the ever-shifting conditions in which wildfires now occur, researchers say authorities and policy-makers need to work in tandem with local communities, bring back Indigenous knowledge and invest money to prevent wildfires from igniting in the first place to reduce the damage and loss that comes after.

A forest fire in central Yakutia, Russia, in June 2020.

UNEP researchers suggest that governments adopt a “fire ready formula,” which commits two-thirds of spending to planning, prevention, preparedness and recovery, with only a smaller percentage put toward response to damages and losses.

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“This formula needs to be fine-tuned to each regional and national context,” Christophersen said. “But in general, it’s a shift away from investing only in the response and more into prevention, planning and recovery.”

Christophersen added that building stronger regional and international cooperation to help other countries is crucial as well.

“Some countries are more advanced in this than others and they can share their knowledge with other countries,” he said. “At the moment, what keeps me up at night is that there’s no real global response yet, so we need more investments also in that kind of a global platform.”

The report acknowledges that the UN system itself “lacks robust wildfire expertise dedicated to this challenge,” which they plan to change through a series of initiatives that would help countries.

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