Forest fires are getting worse around the world. Here’s how California compares


An alarming new United Nations report warns that the number of extreme wildfires worldwide is projected to increase by 50% by the end of the century and that governments are largely unprepared for the emerging crisis.

Even the Arctic, previously all but immune to the threat, faces a growing risk of wildfires due to climate change and other factors, according to the report, released Wednesday ahead of the upcoming UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.

The results likely sound all too familiar to Californians who have lived with the reality of hotter, more frequent and more intense wildfires for years. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the five largest fires recorded in the state have all occurred since 2018.

But the new report sheds light on the harsh lessons California is learning — including what it’s doing right and what still needs to be done. In the fire-prone American West and around the world, the focus is too much on reaction rather than preparation. Additionally, wildfires raise pressing land-use and public health questions that extend well beyond the confines of their blazes.

“We hear that people in DC think of fires as a western or Californian problem, but it really isn’t — it’s a global problem,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension at Santa Barbara contributed to the report. “It affects us all.”

While wildfires have erupted in California in recent years, the Golden State isn’t the only place facing increasingly larger and more frequent conflagrations. In 2020, bushfires in Australia burned an estimated 84 million acres, killing at least 30 people and reportedly wiping out billions of domestic and wild animals.

Heat and drought are also preparing new terrain for ignition, including rainforests, permafrost and peat swamps, according to the report. In Brazil, wildfires have scorched nearly a third of the world’s largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal, in the past two years, and some fear it will never fully recover.

In response to rapidly changing conditions, the report outlines three critical steps for policymakers adapting to a fiercer future: investing in more planning and prevention; Finding and sharing knowledge, such as B. indigenous firefighting practices; and placing wildfires in “the same category of global humanitarian assistance as major earthquakes and floods.”

“Our response is too often late, costly and lagging behind as many countries suffer from a chronic lack of investment in planning and prevention,” the report says, noting that most governments typically spend more than half of their Spending on wildfires spend response and less than 1% on planning.

So in a way, California is already ahead of the curve. Governor Gavin Newsom last year unveiled a $15 billion climate change package that included $1.5 billion for wildfire control and forest resilience. This year’s proposed budget adds $1.2 billion, much of it for forest thinning, mandated burns and other fire risk reduction projects.

But while the numbers reflect a shift toward prevention, more can be done. The state also spent more than $1.1 billion on emergency firefighting costs last year, according to Cal Fire.

California’s response also lacks clarity, according to a separate report from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, which noted that additional wildfire funding was deserved “given the deteriorating pattern of large and severe wildfires in recent years,” but that a “The lack of a strategic forest fire plan makes it difficult to assess” whether the proposed plans are the best approach.

However, Wildfire customization doesn’t end with budgets and finances. Greater regional and international cooperation, as well as the incorporation of shared best practices, can help improve the global response, the UN report says.

One such tool is prescribed burning, a practice of intentionally using fire to remove the dried vegetation that accumulates over time. The practice is not new to California: For centuries, many of the state’s Indigenous communities considered mandatory burning essential to forest health and used it with great success.

But about 100 years ago, indigenous fire practices were suppressed by aggressive firefighting policies, including a now-defunct US Forest Service regulation that required all blazes to be extinguished by 10 a.m. the day after they were lit.

These efforts wreaked havoc on the state, allowing a growth surplus to build up that later fueled fires. Last year, Newsom signed two new laws that pave the way for more mandatory cremation, a move widely celebrated by state pundits.

That the UN report also includes cultural and indigenous firefighting practices is a positive step, said Don Hankins, a professor of geography at Cal State Chico who contributed to the report.

“The landscape is constantly telling us that these are the things to look out for,” said Hankins, who is also a person of Miwok ancestry. “We’ve got to get to the point where we’re playing with fire offensively instead of defensively, and that’s the point where the indigenous fire is on the more offensive side.”

Hankins noted that the UN report included not only Indigenous communities in California, but also South America, Australia and other places around the world. And while California’s climate is ever-changing, “only under Native stewardship has the forest been resilient to these warming and climate-related changes in the environment of fires,” he said.

Forest management is still only one piece of the wildfire adaptation puzzle. According to the report, watersheds can be damaged by wildfires, leading to soil erosion, increased flooding and debris flows, and even pollution of water supplies.

In addition, smoke from wildfires can cause significant respiratory and cardiovascular problems for people who inhale it. In 2020, smoke from California wildfires reached the east coast and Europe – highlighting the global nature of the problem.

“The true costs of wildfires — financial, social and environmental — stretch out over days, weeks and even years after blazes die down,” the report said.

Although many of these impacts pose a disproportionate threat to low-income communities and countries around the world, the factors are amplified at times in California, where population growth, housing demand, urban development, and land-use practices are pushing more people and homes into the wildland-city interface.

The smoke from the 2018 campfire that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise and killed 85 people proved far more harmful than that from vegetation fires, spreading toxic chemicals while burning through homes, vehicles and electronics, and not just endangering local residents , but also firefighters and first responders.

The problem of the wildland-urban interface isn’t unique to California, but it’s also not a problem faced by every other wildfire-prone area. Massive wildfires in Siberia in 2020 were linked to Arctic warming but threatened fewer lives.

“If we don’t start thinking about the solutions in terms of where and how we build, I feel like we’re missing out on something pretty important,” said Moritz, who is also an associate professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Many in the state are beginning to get the message: Last month, a California judge paused plans for a luxury development in Lake County, citing concerns about wildfire evacuation plans. The move follows similar actions against plans for a housing development in a fire-prone area of ​​San Diego County and a community of 19,300 households on the southern flanks of the Tehachapi Mountains.

According to the UN report, it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk of wildfires, and even under the lowest greenhouse gas emissions scenario, the planet is likely to see a significant increase in wildfires in the coming years. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.

“We need to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: investing more in fire risk reduction, working with local communities and strengthening global commitment to tackle climate change,” said United Nations Environment Program chief Inger Andersen. in a statement.

Those who worked on the report said they hoped it would stimulate needed and urgent conversations about wildfires in the West and around the world.

“We’re in this international framework, and governments are coming together to discuss it and acknowledge it,” Cal State Chico’s Hankins said. “It takes it to another level.” Forest fires are getting worse around the world. Here’s how California compares

Tom Vazquez

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