Experiencing the extreme heat, deafening noise, and chaos of a wildfire is a dangerous and terrifying experience.
Now the world’s first United Nations global report about the rising threat of extraordinary landscape fires has shown that uncontrollable and devastating wildfires are becoming an expected part of our seasonal calendars.
And not just in Australia, but across the globe.
The report has shown wildfires are an emerging challenge like never before, even in countries that haven’t historically experienced the impacts of wildfires.
A team of international researchers, including scientists from CSIRO, University of Oxford, University of Chile, California State University and as far afield as the Alaska Fire Science Consortium, were engaged by GRID-Arendal to produce a Rapid Response Assessment report on the rising threat of wildfires.
Published by the UN Environment Programme, the report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, assessed the current global occurrences of wildfires and impacts on lives, livelihoods, values and infrastructure, and how these are likely to change in the future. Given the likely increase in wildfires and their impacts globally, the report calls for an overall shift in world-wide wildfire-related expenditures, technological investments to control fire, and recovery planning including the protection and restoration of ecosystems in danger.
“No single nation has solved the problem of dealing with wildfires and even developed countries like Australia struggle to deal with the impacts of wildfires,” said report co-editor and CSIRO Bushfire Behaviour and Risks team leader Dr Andrew Sullivan.
“Uncontrolled vegetation fires occur all the time around the world and don’t cause much in the way of concern, for example in the savannas of northern Australia and Africa. However, places that historically have not suffered from damaging wildfires, such as the Middle East, India, and Siberia, are now starting to feel their impacts.”
Wildfires are increasing due to factors including climate change
Under climate change we are likely to see a greater frequency of conditions conducive to the outbreak of wildfires such as long periods of rainfall deficit combined with hot dry strong winds, Dr Sullivan said.
Due to the commonness of vegetation landscape fires around the planet and the necessity of fire in many ecosystems, it was necessary to establish a new definition of the word ‘wildfire’. According to the report, a wildfire is ‘an unusual or extraordinary free-burning vegetation fire which may be started maliciously, accidently, or through natural means, that causes concern for social, economic, or environmental values’.
“The vast majority of fires don’t cause concern but we are experiencing a change in weather patterns due to climate change as well as changes in populations and demographics that are altering land use and land management practices,” Dr Sullivan said.
“Understanding how these changing conditions combine to influence the likelihood of an outbreak of a wildfire and the subsequent spread and behaviour of that fire are very active areas of research around the world.”
According to the report, management options such reducing fuel loads prior to a wildfire occurrence, fire management (undertaking fighting of the fire once it has started) or relocating those threatened during a wildfire event (e.g., evacuation) can mitigate some of the economic, environmental, or societal impacts of wildfire.
“It is impossible to mitigate all risks for all fires,” Dr Sullivan said.
“As a result, communities often have to learn to live with the residual risk of wildfire.”
The environmental and physical impacts of bushfires
During major wildfire events, headlines are often dominated with statistics about the loss of life and property. While these are the extreme and often most visible impacts of wildfires, these disaster events also have significant impact on the global carbon cycle, costs of disasters, population health, wildlife loss and pollution of water ways.
“A primary concern of major bushfire events is the impacts on human health,” Dr Sullivan said.
“While we often immediately see the direct impacts from the flames of a wildfire, the area affected is relatively small compared to the total area that that wildfire may impact. For example, the smoke from a ten thousand hectare wildfire may affect people living in an area 10 to 15 times that, people who may never even see the flames. The smoke concentration per population is quite significant.”
Wildfire smoke contains small particles and toxic combustion products that have been shown to cause respiratory harm and lead to subsequent health issues such as cardiovascular or pulmonary diseases. During the 2019-2020 season smoke blanketed parts of Australia for several weeks as the bushfires burned, leading to public health advice to stay indoors.
Reducing the risk
The report outlines nine recommendations for countries to consider when aiming to reduce their risk of wildfires.
These include recognising and responding to the impact of climate change on the prevalence and behaviour of wildfires; improving fuel management and wildfire monitoring; supporting and integrating Indigenous, traditional, and contemporary fire management practices into policy; and strengthening international and regional cooperation on wildfires.
UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen believes it’s paramount that countries work together to respond and address to the impacts of climate change.
“This means a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and profound support for adaptation measures through financial investments and shared technology,” she said.
Dr Sullivan said incorporating indigenous approaches to fire management are also becoming increasingly important in Australia and globally.
“In too many parts of the world, traditional owners have been displaced from their land,” Dr Sullivan said.
“For government to manage land effectively, you have to be there. People need to be living on and connected to the land to enable effective fire management. As such, the contribution by traditional land owners is very important.”
More than 50 international authors contributed to the Wildfire RRA report, ranging from university and government researchers, fire behaviour scientists, and climate and forest experts.
According to all of them, there is a critical need to better understand the behaviour of wildfires and ways to minimise their negative impacts while enabling their positive contributions to the health and function of many ecosystems.
It states ‘when communities and governments are well informed of the risks and impacts of wildfire, they are better able to prepare for, respond to, and recover from these extreme events’.