Being prepared for the global wildfire threat

Climate change has increased the global risk of wildfires, which in turn feed the climate change process. Tianca McHenry explains why it’s a vicious circle and how at-risk communities must plan to deal with this threat if they want to survive. 

A wildfire burns in Alberta, Canada.

Global concentrations of carbon dioxide have risen by 43% over the last 250 years. This has intensified the greenhouse effect, leading to a rise in global temperatures and increases in the strength and frequency of extreme events. The impacts of climate change have been made evident by increasingly severe and powerful natural disasters, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels, more intense rainfall and longer, hotter heatwaves. The last of these effects has made wildfires a major global issue.

The impact of wildfires on climate change is double-edged as they release large amounts of carbon dioxide while destroying the trees and vegetation that absorb it. Alongside causing climate damage, slash-and-burn wildfires in Indonesia in 1997 and 1998 had profound effects on wildlife and created health problems both in the country and its neighbours due to air pollution, as well as adversely affecting the region’s economy. The local peat-swamp forests have a high carbon content and these fires released between 810 million and 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. That equated to between 13-40% of mean annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Seasonality is shifting, with all seasons getting warmer. The range of destructive forest insects, such as the mountain pine beetle and spruce budworm, is expanding and they are surviving winters and proliferating quickly. These pests kill trees and brush, which in turn dry out and become easier to ignite.

It remains clear that global climate change means that where wildfires break out they will be much more intense. Devastating wildfires in October 2017 in California burned over 99,150 hectares and destroyed almost 9000 structures, while the list below of other recent global wildfire events makes for sobering reading:

A growing risk

Despite these threats, increasing expansion of our built environment into transition zones between unoccupied land and human development, known as the wildland urban interface (WUI), is putting even more homes and businesses at risk from wildfires. This makes the consideration of fire and life safety with respect to the infrastructure, buildings, landscaping and surrounding ecosystems of expanding WUI communities paramount against the threat of blazes.

At the same time, remote rural areas are often experiencing a fall in population as younger generations move into towns and cities. This has seen a decline in fire awareness in these areas as what was once engrained fire safety knowledge is not passed on.

Forest fragmentation can also increase the risk of wildfires as the interfaces between rural and urban get blurred, with the resulting fire-prone edges becoming more vulnerable to potentially high-intensity fires.

Plan for resilience

Climate resilience describes the ability of a system to absorb climate change stresses and become more robust, making it able to withstand these growing stresses alongside other non-climate related risks. As communities and their surroundings change, their fire strategies must adapt accordingly to provide climate resilience and survive wildfires.

Fire management plans and robust knowledge of fire will help to provide the resilience needed to deal with the effects of climate change. In the United States, fire adapted communities adopt a bespoke fire strategy to safely coexist with wildland fire.

Building climate resilience is also essential to future business survival. Investing in the resilience dividend will help cities, systems, institutions and people recover faster should disaster hit. Our research has established that investment in resilience could save £/$6-10 with every pound/dollar spent. It will also help to stimulate economic development, job creation, environmental sustainability and social cohesion between any shocks.

Put simply, any community at risk from wildfires must be prepared for and able to respond quickly to fire events if they hope to recover quickly, not only economically but in terms of long-term impacts to the local climate.

Tianca McHenry is a fire engineer at Mott MacDonald. Experts from Mott MacDonald’s climate resilience initiative have also provided input into this article.

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