This summer, wildfires have dominated the headlines. We have witnessed large parts of Canada, Europe, and the US succumb to these devastating disasters.
According to a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal, climate change and land-use change are projected to make wildfires more frequent and intense. The report predicts a global increase in extreme fires of up to 14 percent by 2030, 30 percent by the end of 2050, and 50 percent by the end of the century.
In Canada, the City of Yellowknife declared a state of local emergency on August 14 due to surrounding wildfires, forcing several communities to flee south to Alberta. The Canadian Armed Forces have deployed troops to the Northwest Territories to assist with firefighting efforts and logistical support.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) emphasizes that wildfires and climate change mutually exacerbate each other. Climate change worsens wildfires through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds, resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons. Simultaneously, wildfires worsen climate change by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.
Wildlife and their natural habitats are rarely spared from wildfires, pushing some animal and plant species closer to extinction. The Australian 2020 bushfires are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals.
The fire that devastated Hawaii’s historic town, Lahaina, also affected the town’s massive banyan tree. Standing taller than 60 feet, it had a canopy that covered more than half an acre. It’s too soon to know whether the tree will survive. Weighed against the horrific loss of lives and the nearly complete destruction of a town, the potential loss of a single, gigantic tree may seem trivial. However, for many, it serves as a striking symbol of endurance for a community that has long struggled to preserve its multicultural heritage against an onslaught of transience, tourism, and development pressures.
The UNEP report also indicates that although the number of wildfires is projected to rise by 50% by 2100, governments may not be prepared. It urges them to adopt a new ‘Fire Ready Formula’, allocating two-thirds of spending to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, while reserving one third for response. Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than one percent.
As fires started to burn in Maui, the second largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, 80 outdoor sirens meant to alert residents to tsunamis and other natural disasters remained silent.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez is to lead a comprehensive review of the emergency response, aiming to “understand the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires,” her office said in a statement.
Rep. Jill Tokuda, a Democrat, noted that the state “underestimated the lethality and quickness of the fire,” and that redundancies in the emergency alert system failed. “While we rely on the emergency alert system for safety from various threats, such as tsunamis or wildfires, unfortunately, in today’s world, alerts often come to our cell phones.”
While Maui’s warning sirens were inactive, emergency communications with residents were mostly limited to mobile phones and broadcasters, a challenge during power and cell service outages. Yet, due to fires and other factors there was no cell phone coverage.
Karl Kim, executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii, added that Hawaii has “multiple channels and sources of information — from the media, social media, neighbors, friends, family, and other means of communication.”
“Clearly, more work needs to be done to understand the science of wildfires, how they spread, and how detection, alert, and warning systems can be improved,” he stated via email.
It is worth noting that wildfires also disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations, impeding progress and deepening social inequalities:
- People’s health is directly affected by inhaling wildfire smoke, causing respiratory and cardiovascular issues, with the most vulnerable facing increased health risks.
- The economic costs of rebuilding after wildfires strike areas can be beyond the means of low-income countries.
- Watersheds are degraded by wildfire pollutants, and they can also lead to soil erosion, exacerbating waterway problems.
- Leftover wastes are often highly contaminated and require proper disposal.
As global wildfires continue to burn and show signs of slowing down, a better understanding of wildfire behavior is crucial. Achieving and sustaining adaptive land and fire management requires a combination of policies, a legal framework, and incentives that promote appropriate land and fire use.
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