An annual report of the United Nations Environment Program and GRID-Arendal, a non-profit organization of Norway, released on February 23, 2022, finds the incidence of wildfires around the world is increasing rapidly due to increasing emissions of greenhouse gasses on Earth. The report warns that global wildfires could increase by 14 percent by 2030, 30 percent by 2050, and 50 percent by the end of the century.
If greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates, the Arctic and other cold regions that have not yet been affected by wildfires could face wildfires by the end of the century. In addition, wildfires are likely to increase in Indonesia and the southern Amazon. Uncontrollable and extreme wildfires can be devastating to people, biodiversity, and ecosystems.
The report also reveals that climate change and land-use changes are making wildfires worse and anticipates a global increase of extreme wildfires, both these factors are linked to human activities. Wildfires lead to climate change, contributing significant amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Climate change is caused by the earth’s rising average temperature.
In the first part of the sixth IPCC( Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report released in August 2021, the scientists have clearly stated that the increase in the average temperature of the earth is due to human activities whereas in the previous reports it was mentioned as a possibility of human activity.
Over the last century, the average global temperature has risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial revolution due to high emissions of greenhouse gasses.
Even a small rise in temperature has a huge impact, one degree Celsius rise in temperature is likely to increase the incidence of heavy rainfall by 7 times, the incidence of heatwaves by 5 times whereas a 2 degree Celsius increase is likely to increase the incidence of heatwaves by 14 times.
A slight rise in temperature also multiplies the incidence of natural disasters, such as droughts and wildfires. In June 2021, Lytton, a small town in the Canadian province of British Columbia was devastated by wildfires after a heatwave.
A similar incident took place in Galatsona village on Evia island in Greece. An increase in the average temperature of the earth causes a decrease in the relative humidity in the air which leads to drought conditions which in turn increases the incidents of wildfires.
Wildfires are becoming more intense and frequent, ravaging communities and ecosystems that come in their path. The past five years have seen record-breaking wildfires across the world from Australia to the Arctic to North and South America, China, and many European countries.
Wildfires have wreaked havoc in Greece, Portugal in 2017 and 2018. Wildfires continue to rage in California in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The incidence of wildfires in California has been increasing every year from 2019 to 2021. In 2019, the number of these incidents was 50477 which increased to 58985 in 2021. The area of 7.1 million acres has been affected by wildfire in 2021.
According to the United States National Interagency Fire Center, eight out of the ten largest and costliest wildfires in California have occurred in the last five years. The main cause of wildfires in California is rising temperatures and changes in land use. Temperatures in the western United States have risen by 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century.
The northwestern states of Washington and Oregon saw a rise of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, while California saw a rise of 2 degrees Fahrenheit. With the rise in temperatures, the incidence of wildfires has been increasing by 3 days every year since 1970. According to estimates, if temperatures continue to rise at the current rate, the incidence of wildfires in the western United States could increase two to six times by 2050.
The increase in wildfires in the area is also due to the abundance of Eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus is not a local tree of California, it was planted in California in 1850 to meet the shortage of timber and fuel. It contains a lot of oil. In California, water shortages and rising temperatures can quickly cause fires to burn on the dry leaves and wood of Eucalyptus, leading to severe wildfires.
In 2019-2020, wildfires engulfed Australia, killing millions of wild animals and 33 human beings. Nearly 500 more deaths were attributed to the health effects of wildfire smoke. The wildfires have been raging for several months in summer, that is why the 2019-2020 summer is known as the Black Summer in Australia.
In 2020, the Pantanal wetland (the world’s largest tropical wetland) caught fire due to drought and high temperatures. The Pantanal wetland lost nearly a third of its biodiversity and many endangered species along with it. This wetland is spread across three South American countries: Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia.
In 2020, an average temperature rise of 4 to 6 degrees Celsius in the northern part of Siberia, a region known as the coldest part of the Russian Federation, caused a forest fire that burned millions of wild animals and millions of hectares of forest.
Forest fires increase emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. These gasses enter the atmosphere and raise the temperature. Rising temperatures increase the incidence of heatwaves and droughts. Such incidents then lead to a dramatic increase in wildfires and this phenomenon repeats again and again as a vicious cycle.
Due to human activities, there is a continuous rise in the average temperature of the earth. On the other hand, in the name of economic development, large-scale deforestation is taking place for roads, bridges, residential construction, mining, and commercial farming.
Most of the countries of the world have wasted a lot of natural resources in a blind race of economic development. A special report of IPCC titled ‘Climate Change and Land’ released in 2019, revealed that human activities have changed 70 percent of the Earth’s (ice-free) area. Natural vegetation has been replaced by concrete surfaces (settlement areas and infrastructural amenities) that emit large amounts of temperature-increasing gasses instead of absorbing greenhouse gasses.
On one hand, we have a rapid increase in human population while on the other hand, the area under forests is declining rapidly. Man is planting commercial crops in place of natural vegetation for his own economic interests, for which he is destroying forests. Since taking office in 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bellsnaro has undermined the legal protections of the Amazon rainforest and the rights of the tribes living in those forests.
In the name of the economic development of Brazil, dense forests are being set on fire and replaced by crops like soybean and palm. Cattle pastures and habitats are also being set up for exporting meat to other countries. Increasing numbers of livestock and indiscriminate cutting and burning of forest for the cultivation of commercial crops are also responsible for the increasing incidence of wildfires.
Replacement of native (local) by ornamental and commercial vegetation is also responsible for the increasing incidence of wildfires. In the Himalayan states of India (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) in the 19th century, the British government made extensive use of local trees such as oak, sal, and cedar, and to supplement them with a large number of Pine trees in the region which are commercially and economically viable but the wood of these trees is more flammable which is leading to increasing in wildfires in the area.
Wildfires are also deadly to human health. If left unmanaged, they can be left astray and lose the right path. They can also cause allergies in the eyes and on the skin. Wildfires are wreaking havoc on forests, wildlife, and the environment. According to a research study published in The Lancet journal, 30,000 people die each year in 43 countries from the effects of wildfires. According to a report by the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, wildfires emitted 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the two months of July and August in 2021. Carbon dioxide is an important gas that raises the temperature.
Although it is not possible to eliminate wildfires, much can be done to reduce them. The United Nations Environment Program has called on the governments of various countries to come up with alternative and effective plans to control wildfires. So far the governments of different countries have spent only on firefighting vehicles and personnel.
To prevent wildfires, the first step is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more quickly in order to control the rise in temperature. To control the incidence of wildfires, the local vegetation needs to be taken care of.
Instead of commercially viable and attractive-looking trees, each country will have to re-adopt local vegetation. Commercially profitable California Eucalyptus and Pine trees in the Himalayan region of India are increasing the incidence of wildfires.
Therefore, after cutting down these trees, local varieties of trees should be planted here. In addition, big companies and banks that are deforesting on a large scale in the name of sustainable development should be banned.
In order to control wildfires, forest dwellers must first be given the right to use the forests. At the same time, immediate help should be sought from them to put out wildfires. New fire prevention structures should be set up in the affected areas because prevention is better than cure.
Fire and Disaster Management Force should also be set up for other disasters like floods and droughts. Funding and expansion of scientific research are essential for the prevention of wildfires. Countries need to proactively involve locals, both people, and companies, to plant trees and increase forest cover.
Countries also need to protect the lives and rights of indigenous tribes living in forests and learn from their traditional techniques of dealing with forest fires, so they should be actively involved in the community to counter this looming threat. Deforestation needs to be counteracted with Reforestation, we cannot survive with our shrinking green cover. We need to act now, because looking at the increasing frequency and intensity of the wildfires, human life is in immediate danger. Time to act is now, any delay is too late, the world is literally on fire.
Read another piece on Rising Temperatures by Gurinder Kaur titled How Should India Deal with the Problem of Melting Glaciers? in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece on Natural Disasters in India by Gurinder Kaur titled Floods and Recurring Natural Disasters in India in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece on Air Pollution in Delhi by Gurinder Kaur titled Air Pollution in Delhi: Politics and Possible Solution in IMPRI Insights
Youtube: Watch Gurinder Kaur at IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk- Delhi’s Air Pollution and its solutions
About the Author
Dr. Gurinder Kaur, Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala, Visiting Professor at IMPRI