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Climate change: we need to adapt our forests in the face of wildfires

Tens of thousands of hectares have been devastated around the world by high temperatures and droughts, and the UN environment agency reports that this destruction will continue to increase
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Unsplash/Mikhail Serdyukov  -   Climate change increases the risk of hot, dry temperatures that can encourage forest fires

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

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

In California alone, a fire near the Sierra Nevada mountain range burned more than 6,000 hectares and forced 3,000 people from their homes. 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, mostly in the far east of the country and Siberia.

Wildfires are also prominent across Europe, particularly 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.

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Unsplash/Malachi Brooks - Smoke from large fires in the United States has created air quality and health problems in remote parts of the country.
Climate change kills

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, during a visit to the Extremadura region in the southwest of the country that has been hit hard by forest fires, said: "Climate change kills: it kills people; it also kills our ecosystem, our biodiversity, and it also destroys the things that we as a society cherish: our homes, our businesses, our livestock".

However, while such disasters in Europe have attracted much public attention with many headlines, those in developing countries are far more devastating and common, as authorities often lack adequate firefighting equipment.

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

It looks like these disasters will become even more frequent. Predictions in the United Nations Environment Programme report, published earlier this year, mention that extreme fires could increase by as much as 14% by 2030, 30% by the end of 2050 and 50% by the end of the century.

Fuelling climate change

While the flames destroy property, land and lives, they also release CO2, further aggravating the climate crisis.

"According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), wildfires generate up to one-third of carbon emissions from global ecosystems, a phenomenon that exacerbates climate change," says Robert Stefanski, head of the World Meteorological Organisation's Commission for Agricultural Meteorology. 

However, there are many other factors that contribute to forest fires.

"Deforestation, peat drainage, expansion or abandonment of agriculture, fire suppression and inter-week cycles such as El Niño-Southern Oscillation may exert a stronger influence than climate change on the increase or decrease of wildfires."

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

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Unsplash/Jo-Anne McArthur - Australia's bushfires are another sign of advancing climate change
It's not just the number that's increasing, it's the intensity too

Dr Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at Copernicus, says that although there have been fewer fires globally over the past two decades, some regions, such as the western United States and Siberia, have seen many more. And their intensity is increasing.

"The data show that some of these fires are now burning at higher intensity and longer duration in recent years," says Parrington. "In the past, extreme wildfires were more isolated and burned for only a few days. However, in recent years they have been burning for several weeks".

The key factor in the intensity of wildfires is surface temperature: "By intensifying its main driver, heat, human-induced climate change increases wildfires. So the heat of climate change dries out vegetation and accelerates burning," Stefanski explains.

But non-climatic factors also cause forest fires.

"Agribusinesses, small farmers and livestock herders in many tropical areas cut down forests and intentionally set fires to clear fields and pastures. Cities, towns and roads increase the number of fires that people start.

Governments in many countries suppress fires, even natural fires, by producing unnatural fuel accumulations in the form of thick woody debris and dense stands of small trees. Fuel accumulations cause particularly severe fires that burn in the treetops," the scientist says.

Adapting forests

So what can be done to prevent forest fires?

Both natural and managed forests (whether public or private) need to be adapted, which requires the adoption of conservation, protection and restoration measures.  

In addition, in managed forests, adaptation options include sustainable forest management, diversification and adjustment of tree species composition to increase resilience. It also involves managing increasing risks from pests and diseases and forest fires.

"Restoring natural forests and drained peatlands, as well as improving the sustainability of managed forests, generally increases the resilience of carbon stocks and sinks," Stefanski adds.

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Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda IAP - Fire Brigade in the Sierra Gorda de Querétaro
Consider indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples have their own techniques for preventing forest fires, including controlled burning, in which small fires are lit to remove highly flammable dead foliage from the forest.

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

Ultimately, the only way there will be a decrease in forest fires is if climate change is addressed comprehensively.

This means countries coming forward with much greater commitments by reducing emissions can reverse the global temperature rise, as they committed to in the Paris Agreement.

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

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