Mega forest fires endanger the planet
For the last 20 years, huge fires have been multiplying at an alarming speed. From Oceania to California, and in Europe, Portugal, Spain, the images of spectacular fires devouring forests and dwellings have made the headlines in recent months. And this is only the beginning, warn the UN-Environment and the GRID-Arendal center.
The earth is not ready to face exceptional fires like those that ravaged Australia in 2019-2020, extreme episodes fueled by global warming whose number should increase by the end of the century, warns the UN in a report published Wednesday, February 23.
Not all fires, natural, accidental or caused, are directly caused by global warming, but the increasingly frequent and intense episodes of drought and heat waves create conditions conducive to their development. “Even with the most ambitious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world will experience a dramatic increase in the frequency of conditions that favor extreme fires,” the paper says.
Favorable conditions do not necessarily mean fires. Even so, even if the world were to succeed in limiting warming to +2°C compared to the pre-industrial era, the main objective of the Paris agreement, the number of catastrophic fire episodes like those that ravaged Australia during the 2019-2020 austral summer or the Arctic in 2020, is expected to increase between 9 and 14% by 2030, between 20 and 33% by 2050, and between 31 and 52% by 2100.
All of these figures are for only the most exceptional fires, which in theory only occur once every 100 years, and thus occur slightly more often. “These are low-probability events and this increases their probability slightly,” says one of the authors, Andrew Sullivan of CSIRO. While the report doesn’t provide an estimate for the rest of the fires, “it’s likely that the extreme events are increasing just as much,” he adds, noting that the increase in events could also be interpreted as an expansion of the area burned.
And even talking about a possible worsening of the situation, fires are already a danger to life on the planet: smoke inhalation, soil degradation and water pollution, destruction of the habitats of many species … Not to mention the aggravation of global warming due to the destruction of forests, crucial to absorb the carbon we emit. But if eliminating the risk of fires is impossible, it can be reduced, the report insists.
The solutions would be to improve the management of “fuels” – anything that can burn – another key variable in fire behavior along with weather (heat and dryness) and topography. But “the response of governments to fires is to put money in the wrong place,” laments UN Environment boss Inger Andersen. According to the report, the costs of the damage caused by fires are much higher than the investments to fight them, most of which is currently spent on the response to fires that have already started (firefighters, evacuations, …).
We should try to correct this imbalance by investing in prevention: reducing activities that can cause fires to start, better management of dead vegetation, clearing brush around homes, changing land use… “We must minimize the risk of extreme fires by being prepared,” insisted Inger Andersen. This means “investing more in risk reduction, working with local communities and strengthening commitments against climate change”.