As global warming takes its toll on the environment, wildfires are likely to become more common and more widespread. Is there anything we can do to stop them?
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“Nine days after the fire we were allowed back to our house,” says Laura Benjamin, who lost her home and business in Colorado’s June 2013 Black Forest wildfire – the US state’s most destructive fire ever. “When we drove up there were metal pipes sticking up in the air, broken glass, the shell of our hot water tank, stove and refrigerator. It was at my brother’s place that the emotions kicked in. I saw the carcass of a burned critter, a squirrel or rabbit, that was standing upright as though it had been flash-frozen.”
Unfortunately, similar experiences of the destructive power of bush fires are only going to become more common, according to David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania in Australia. He predicts that wildfires will occur more often and be more destructive thanks to climate change – and will occur in places that have not had wildfires before.
If you own a holiday home on the Mediterranean coast, you may end up wanting to sell it if you believe some of his concerns.
Apocalyptic visions or overblown worries?
Warnings about future forest fires published in the online journal Nature Ecology & Evolution earlier this year came on the anniversary of the Hobart wildfire on Tasmania in 1967. It killed six people, injured 900 and destroyed 7,000 homes.
“Sooner or later all the bad things will line up and there will be a wildfire out there that is really big – city-destroying,” says Bowman. “But how can governments and the insurance industry understand the threat when the worst-case scenario hasn’t happened yet?”
Well, it almost has. In November last year, a wildfire swept through parts of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city with a population of 250,000, causing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and the mobilisation of the military, along with volunteer Palestinian firefighters, to help fight it.
Other researchers are not so sure about the doomsday scenario. “Fires have always burnt – it’s humans that are the problem,” says Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources, who collaborated with Bowman on his research. “Wildfire is a natural ecosystem process that has occurred for millennia, just like most other natural hazards, including tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. Humans put themselves in danger by building flammable homes and communities in areas where wildfires have always burnt.”
Will the UK and the rest of the world suffer?
Two years before the fire that destroyed Laura Benjamin’s life, the English county of Berkshire experienced its very own wildfire in 2011.
“The Swinley forest fire was a ground surface fire that actually progressed up into the tree crowns, but this is very unusual for the UK,” says Martin Wooster, a professor of Earth observation science at King’s College London and the Natural Environment Research Council’s National Centre for Earth Observation.
His research is looking into new ways of measuring the emissions fires put into the atmosphere. This has involved getting instruments so close to “research burns” that the heat from the fire melts the keyboards of their laptops.
“However, there have been some studies that suggest that if the climate of the south-east of England does become increasingly suited to activities like wine growing because of climate change, then adverse events like this type of severe fire may also become more common,” says Wooster. “How will climate change affect wildfires globally? One problem is that most countries don’t have long and accurate enough wildfire records to show any conclusive effect.”
Canada’s National Fire Database, which stretches back more than 50 years, is one of relatively few examples of extensive research into this area. This helps to explain how Canadian scientists believe they have made a connection between the number of wildfires and climate change – and why others have struggled.
“Simulations can show us what may happen in future, but in many counties any changes in fire regimes due to climate change are at the moment quite likely to be outweighed by changes related to issues such as varying agricultural burning practices and rates of deforestation.”
The global tinderbox
If the Earth were a piece of furniture, then it wouldn’t pass its fire safety check. Wildfires occur when grass, bushes, trees and even peatlands catch fire in rural or semi-rural areas. Globally they may be to blame for as much as 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions each year. They are also as dirty as a diesel engine – and release huge amounts of material into the atmosphere.
The fires are often started by a human element – an arsonist, a hiker or even children. When humanity isn’t to blame for these fires then it’s usually down to lightning strikes, or even a spark from a rock fall. From clues left in the fossil record it seems that wildfires first appeared just after the first plants 420 million years ago. These paleo-fires must have played a key role in evolution.
Today, though, the debate is whether climate change is making wildfires worse, or whether humans are by where they want to live. Bowman’s research focused on “a good robust sample” of the 478 most extreme wildfires out of the total of 23 million worldwide between 2002 and 2013. He then identified 144 fires that were particularly economically and socially disastrous, concentrated where humans have built in at-risk areas in southern Australia and western North America.
Using climate change models, the research found that more extreme fires are predicted in the future for Australia’s east coast, including Brisbane, and the Mediterranean area. The number of fire days could increase by as much as 50 per cent in these tinderbox landscapes.
“This research should be a really big warning to us,” says Bowman. “We are going to have large destructive fires, which, like hurricanes, will be beyond human control. Very intensively settled areas have no fuel for them to consume, but nowadays you have this intermix of suburbs sprawling into the countryside in a wildland urban interface and that is where we see the major destructive fire environments.
“Unfortunately, the Med was one place where humans had learned to live in these dangerous environments and it has now caught the disease from Australia and California.”
Holden agrees, saying: “Human-caused climate change is exacerbating a human-caused fire problem. Fires are getting bigger, but what is worse is the greater number of people living in the wildland urban interface. Most of the fatalities occurring where firefighters have been caught and overrun by flames are where wildland firefighters are trying to protect homes.”
How can we tackle these blazes?
Today, when you see a wildfire being fought it looks like humanity has declared war on fire. The firefighters use satellites and remote sensors to track the fires and computer models to predict their spread. Huge 747s and DC10s fly in low to bomb them with fire retardant. On the ground, men and women fight the fire with age-old hand tools such as shovels or rakes – and hope for a break in the weather or a natural feature like a ridge to help them win the battle.
In the future humanity may have to learn to retreat in the face of these mega-fires. “We will have to be realistic about fighting them less,” says Holden, “and letting more houses and communities burn up if people are unwilling to do the things that we know reduce the chances of their homes and communities burning.”
Towns on the front line can learn a lot from communities in the Netherlands and on the Gulf Coast of Texas. “If our homes were built of non-flammable materials like metal roofs, non-wooden siding, and without wooden decks and flammable landscaping, you could go inside while the fire goes right over and past you, and then come out shortly afterwards,” adds Holden. Ironically, building codes designed to protect people from earthquakes by building homes out of wood have put them at greater risk from wildfires.
There are also more basic things that communities can do to mitigate the risk. “We have built our new home with a perimeter around our house where there are no trees, which may act as a barrier should another wildfire come through,” says Laura Benjamin.
“You can imagine the resistance there will be to making landscapes less flammable, but at the end of this we are going to have different cities and different attitudes because the cost of these fires will be so great,” says Bowman. “People are going to have to get the crap scared out of them before they understand how much climate change is loading the dice against us.”