The United Nations for the first time has assessed the global risk of catastrophic wildfires, finding that as climate change accelerates more of the world will burn, with disastrous consequences for human health, the economy and biodiversity.
“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes, while more extreme weather means stronger, hotter, drier winds to fan the flames,” wrote the authors of the report, released last week by the UN Environment Programme and the nonprofit GRID-Arendal. “Too often, our response is tardy, costly, and after the fact, with many countries suffering from a chronic lack of investment in planning and prevention.”
“This must change,” the report added. “Wildfires need to be placed in the same category of global humanitarian response as major earthquakes and floods.”
The report forecast that the risk of cataclysmic wildfires could increase as much as 57 percent by the end of the century, depending on temperature rise. “Even with the most ambitious efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will still experience a dramatic increase in the frequency of extreme fire conditions,” it stated.
More than 50 researchers from six continents produced the report, and their conclusions should send a message to policymakers, said Hugh Safford, a wildfire expert and contributing author.
“We’re spending an enormous amount of money on fire suppression and very little dealing with the real causes of wildfires,” said Safford, a retired U.S. Forest Service ecologist and a researcher at University of California, Davis. “The effects of fire suppression means you just accumulate fuel for a longer time, and paradoxically, you increase the probability of catastrophic outcomes in the long run.”
Over the past decade the intensity and impact of wildfires has grown worldwide, with 2020 a particularly devastating year that seemed to herald the arrival of an apocalyptic new era.
That year began with continent-wide bushfires in Australia that killed an estimated 3 billion animals, including many endangered species, and burned rainforests previously thought impervious to fire. The disaster was preceded by a long drought and occurred during above-average temperatures that magnified the effects of the bushfires, according to the report.
Meanwhile, fires broke out in the Arctic as a heat wave hit the region. California suffered a series of megafires in 2020 that burned through vast forests and suffocated cities with toxic smoke.
The growth in wildfires in turn will exacerbate climate change as burning forests and vegetation release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Wildfires pose a particular danger to rainforests and peatlands that store huge amounts of carbon.
“Wildfires may accelerate the positive feedback loop in the carbon cycle, making it more difficult to halt rising temperatures,” according to the report.
Humans are contributing to that feedback loop through deforestation in places like Indonesia, where land clearing for palm oil plantations and other agriculture has ignited carbon-intensive peatlands. Worldwide, peatlands contain a large share of the carbon stored in soil.
At the same time, the researchers found that the use of land for intensive agriculture in regions of China, India, Europe, the United States and South America has suppressed wildfires. Likewise, incidents of wildfire in Africa have fallen as grassland savannas become fragmented.
The United Nations recommended that nations invest more resources into reducing fire risks and making communities more resilient to wildfires and the health effects of smoke. The report also called for incorporating indigenous fire management practices and increasing international cooperation.