The world is unprepared for increasing wildfires – but it could be

As the Earth heats, there are going to be more fires. The planet can expect 14% more wildfires by 2030, 30% more by 2030, and 50% more by 2100, according to a new report.

While most of the world is currently unprepared for this increase in burning, there are a number of things that governments and other organisations can do to prepare.

The United Nations Environment Program and environmental not-for-profit organisation GRID-Arendal have released the report on the future of fire, compiling input from more than 50 different experts, representing over 30 different countries.

The report examines wildfires – defined here as unusual free-burning fires – and their potential to increase in intensity and frequency over the next decades, as well as how the world should prepare for them.

“It’s the most comprehensive report that’s ever been done looking at fire at the global scale,” says Dr Andrew Sullivan, leader of the CSIRO Bushfire Behaviour and Risks team, and a co-editor on the report.

The report highlights the “mutually exacerbating” features of global warming and wildfires, and points out that parts of the world that were previously untouched by fire are increasingly at risk.

Alongside environmental destruction and direct threats to human life, wildfires cause ongoing health effects through smoke inhalation, watershed and environmental degradation, economic disruption and additional changes in atmosphere and weather patterns. These effects all last for years after a fire has subsided.

More on fires and health: How are we studying firefighter health risks? Part 1 and Part 2

Most of the current expenditure on fires is reactionary: fighting fires and assisting affected communities when a wildfire has started. The report recommends investing more money in reducing risk and increasing preparedness: there’s a long list of ways this can be done, including better landscape management and Indigenous community engagement, public information campaigns, more research on predicting fire spread, and data sharing.

While many of these things are dependent on local fire patterns and communities, there are some things that can be addressed at a global scale, according to co-editor Professor Elaine Baker, director of the GRID-Arendal office at the University of Sydney.

“Sharing of information and data, being able to better predict the potential for wildfires can be done much better with a coordinated approach,” says Baker.

“Climate change – addressing that is obviously a global issue.”

“There are a lot of parts of the world who have no experience of fire,” says Sullivan. “Australia’s got a good advantage because we’ve got a history of fire and people know what bushfires are, but there are other parts of the world where fires are something unheard of.”

“We’re now burning areas around the globe that haven’t adapted to fire,” says Baker.

“In the swamps of Siberia, or the Pantanal in South America, which is a huge biodiverse wetland, it’s been burning. Tropical rain forests are burning. Many of them don’t have the same potential [as Australian bush] to recover.”

Sharing information and data with the inhabitants of these places is an important way to lower the risks of fires to both people and the environment.

“People just don’t have that background. So when fires break out, it’s something new and different for them and they’re basically starting from scratch as to how to deal with it,” says Sullivan.

“That’s the point of the report: they don’t have to. People have learnt lessons somewhere around the world.”

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