Number of wildfires forecast to rise by 14% by 2030

Hundreds of thousands of hectares are being burned by fire around the world due to high temperatures and droughts. The UN agency for the environment reports that this destruction will continue to increase and urges the adaptation of natural forests to climate change by implementing conservation, protection and restoration measures that prevent deforestation in the face of fire risk.

This summer, the world has had to deal with devastating wildfires, a highly visible and very damaging illustration of the climate crisis.

In the United States, several states are battling wildfires, including Alaska, where more than 1.2 million hectares of land were destroyed by fire in mid-July.

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, more than 2.2 million hectares of land burned in the United States this year, about 70% more than the 10-year average.

In Russia, more than 6,000 forest fires had started by the end of June, covering more than 809,000 hectares of land, most of them in the far east of the country and Siberia.

Forest fires are also prominent across Europe, most notably in France, Portugal, Spain and Greece, countries that have experienced record temperatures and long periods of drought. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, while hundreds of thousands of hectares have been destroyed across the continent.

France is currently fighting a fire that started on Tuesday in the southwest of the country that has burned 7,400 hectares in the departments of Gironde and Landes until this Friday, with effects also on land connections with Spain and limitations on the transit of heavy vehicles in the passage of Biriatou.

The fire campaign has not yet ended and more than 162,000 hectares have already burned in Spain, according to the latest balance on forest fires published by the Ministry for Ecological Transition, which counts up to 37 large fires so far this year.

Only the damage that the fires have caused to agricultural holdings so far totals about 4.7 million euros, estimates the Spanish Combined Agricultural Insurance System (Agroseguro), which states that 2022 is being “complicated” compared to previous years. (in 2021, registered compensation did not exceed 1.75 million and in 2020 it was 1.1 million).

Galicia, one of the communities most affected by forest fires that this year has been especially virulent, is now pending several fires declared in the last hours in Ourense, specifically in the O Carballiño region, in Irixo and Boborás and in Laza, in addition to Chandrexa de Queixa, whose surface already exceeds 2,000 calcined hectares. The largest is Laza, which affects about 1,350 hectares.

Smoke from large fires in the United States has caused air quality and health problems in far-flung parts of the country.

In this sense, the United Nations highlights how the President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez, during a visit to the region of Extremadura, in the southwest of the country, which has been hit hard by forest fires, stated that “climate change kills: it kills people; it also kills our ecosystem, our biodiversity, and it also destroys the things that we hold dear as a society: our homes, our businesses, our livestock.”

However, while these types of disasters in Europe have drawn public attention with many headlines, those in developing countries are far more devastating and commonplace, as authorities often lack emergency equipment.

Fires start due to a number of factors including high temperatures and lack of moisture in trees, bushes, and grasses. Add to that longer, hotter, and drier summers. For that reason, it is not surprising that we are seeing more frequent and longer-lasting wildfires around the world.

«Forest fires generate up to a third of the carbon emissions of global ecosystems»

It seems that these disasters will become even more frequent. The predictions of the United Nations Environment Program report, published earlier this year, mention that extreme fires could increase up to 14% by 2030, 30% by the end of 2050 and 50% by the end of the century.

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In addition, the United Nations warns that fires feed climate change since they release CO2. Specifically, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), forest fires generate up to a third of carbon emissions from global ecosystems, a phenomenon that exacerbates climate change”, says Robert Stefanski, head of the Commission on Climate Change. Agricultural Meteorology of the World Meteorological Organization.

“Deforestation, the destruction of peatlands, the expansion or abandonment of agriculture, fire suppression, and interannual cycles such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, can exert a stronger influence than climate change in increasing or decreasing of forest fires»

The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service revealed that a record was set last July when 1,258.8 megatons of CO2 were released into the atmosphere; more than half of that carbon dioxide was attributed to fires in North America and Siberia.

Wildfires are also significant across Europe, notably in France, Portugal, Spain and Greece, countries that have experienced record temperatures and long periods of drought. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, while hundreds of thousands of hectares have been destroyed across the continent.

France is currently fighting a fire that started on Tuesday in the southwest of the country that has burned 7,400 hectares in the Gironde and Landes departments until Friday, with effects also on land connections with Spain and limitations on the transit of heavy vehicles in Biriatou pass.

Dr. Mark Parrington, Copernicus Principal Scientist, says that while there have been fewer fires around the world in the last two decades, in some regions, such as the western United States and Siberia, there have been many more. And its intensity increases.

“The data shows that some of these fires are now burning with greater intensity and duration than in recent years,” says Parrington. “Before, extreme forest fires were more isolated and burned for a few days. However, in recent years they have been seen burning for several weeks.”

The key factor in wildfire intensity is surface temperature: “By intensifying its main driver, heat, human-caused climate change increases wildfires. Therefore, the heat from climate change dries out the vegetation and speeds up burning,” explains Stefanski.

However, the United Nations also draws attention to the non-climatic factors that cause this proliferation and intensification of forest fires.

“Agricultural companies, small farmers and cattle herders in many tropical areas cut down forests and intentionally set fires to clear fields and pastures. Cities, towns, and highways increase the number of fires people start. Governments in many countries extinguish fires, even natural ones, by producing unnatural accumulations of fuel in the form of coarse woody debris and dense stands of small trees. Fuel accumulations cause especially serious fires that burn in the treetops”, explains the scientist.

World experts point out as a premise to mitigate this intensification of fires that it is necessary to adapt forests, both natural and managed (either by the public or private sector), which requires the approval of conservation, protection and restoration measures.

Furthermore, in managed forests, adaptation options include sustainable forest management, diversification and adjustment of tree species composition to increase resilience. It also means managing the growing risks of pests and diseases and wildfires.

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“Restoring natural forests and drained peatlands, in addition to improving the sustainability of managed forests, generally increases the resilience of carbon stocks and sinks,” adds Stefanski.

In this sense, the UN points out the lessons that can be learned from indigenous peoples who have their own techniques to prevent forest fires, including controlled burning, in which small fires are lit to eliminate highly flammable dead foliage from the forest.

“Cooperation and inclusive decision-making with local communities and indigenous peoples, as well as recognition of their inherent rights, are integral to successful forest adaptation in many areas,” says Stefanski.

Ultimately, the only way there will be a decline in wildfires is if climate change is addressed comprehensively, he says. This means that countries present far greater commitments to reduce emissions to reverse the increase in global temperature, as they committed to in the Paris Agreement.

It is also important to educate the population: a single ember from the barbecue or a cigarette can have devastating consequences, while the heat of a car’s exhaust pipe is enough to set fire to dry leaves.

With wildfires expected to increase in frequency and intensity, governments will need to invest more in firefighting equipment and personnel, as well as ensure that homes in high-risk areas have a high level of safety.

A recent study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the GRID-Arendal organization qualifies the phenomenon as a global forest fire crisis and projects that these disasters will increase by 30% by 2050 and more than 50% by end of the century. which represents a risk of fires worldwide.

More than 50 scientists around the world that produced the report cite global warming, droughts, and changes in land use as the cause of this man-made disaster threat.

According to the forecasts of the analysis, no corner of the planet will be safe from forest fires, which could even affect the Arctic and other regions that were not at risk.

Faced with this danger, the authors of the research fight for a radical change in government strategies, calling on them to base them on prevention, preparation and adequate budget allocation.

“We must minimize the risk of forest fires with better preparation: we need to invest more in reducing fire risk, working with local communities and strengthening global commitment to combat climate change,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

The study highlights that wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest countries, with impacts lasting long after the fire is out, impeding their progress towards sustainable development and exacerbating social inequalities.

The costs of rebuilding after fires are often out of reach for low-income countries, the paper emphasizes.

As for nature, wildfires are wiping out wildlife and natural habitats, and have pushed some animal and plant species to the brink of extinction. For example, the 2020 bushfires in Australia are estimated to have killed billions of domestic and wild animals.

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