Breakdown: Why the UN says the wildfire risk will rise this century

Published: Apr. 26, 2022 at 8:41 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The United Nations released a report on February 23, 2022 saying we can expect uncontrollable wildfires to increase in this century.

The report is called Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires. You can download it here. It’s conducted in partnership with the nonprofit GRID-Arendal, based in Norway. In the long run, it suggests that even Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires will be experiencing wildfires later in this century.

Significantly, the projections are a 14% increase by 2030, 30% by 2050 and 50% by the end of the century.

By the end of the century, the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire events will increase by a...
By the end of the century, the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire events will increase by a factor of 1.31 to 1.57. Even under the lowest emissions scenario, we will likely see a significant increase in wildfire events. See appendix for construction.(Kristina Thygesen, GRID-Arendal, 2022 | Douglas I. Kelley, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology)

The report cites two reasons, specifically: climate change and land-use change.

Wildfires and climate change are “mutually exacerbating”, according to the report.

“Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

“At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.”

Wildlife, as well as natural habitats, are also rarely spared. Wildfires have even pushed some animal and plant species closer to extinction. The 2020 bushfires in Australia are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals.

An example of the ecological disturbance that can result from wildfires on peatlands. Peatlands...
An example of the ecological disturbance that can result from wildfires on peatlands. Peatlands contribute significantly to carbon sequestration and storage, biodiversity conservation, water regime and quality regulation, and the provision of other ecosystem services. Climate and land-use change increases the vulnerability of peatland ecosystems to fire, which are particularly difficult to extinguish, and have a range of ecological, hydrological, and social impacts.(Susan Page/University of Leicester, 2021. | GRID-Arendal/Studio Atlantis, 2021)

Additionally, wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations, with impacts that last long after the flames subside – impeding progress towards sustainable development and deepening social inequalities.

Smoke from wildfires directly affects people’s health, for example, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts, while the cost of rebuilding can be beyond the means of low-income countries.

Smoke particulate exposure pathways and impacts. Smoke exposure is most commonly measured from...
Smoke particulate exposure pathways and impacts. Smoke exposure is most commonly measured from land-based air pollutant monitors, followed by satellite-based imagery models, with fewer studies measuring personal exposure to smoke(Health impacts of fire exposure: Reid et al. 2016; Cascio 2018; Liu et al. 2015; Adetona et al. 2016. Oxidative stress response in lung cells: Franzi et al. 2011; Karthikeyan, Balasubramanian and Iouri 2006; Nakayama et al. 2011. Impacts on the central nervous system: Milton and White 2020.)

The report underscores the critical need to better understand the behavior of wildfires. Prevention calls for a combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge, and for a stronger regional and international cooperation.

Governments are urged to adopt a so-called “Fire Ready Formula”, which calls for two thirds of spending to be devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness and recovery – and one third for response.

They said that currently, money is often being put in the wrong place.

“Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported. We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change,” said Andersen.

Currently, direct responses to wildfires receive over half of related expenditure, with less than one per cent allocated for planning and prevention, according to the report.

The authors hope the report will shed light on the problem and call for stronger international standards for the safety and health of firefighters and for reducing the threats they face on the job.

This includes raising awareness of the risks of smoke inhalation, minimizing the potential for life-threatening entrapments, and providing them with access to adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery between shifts.

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