Individual instances of this kind of a natural disaster do not always receive such amounts of attention from the global community, but the overall perception of fires has been changing. More and more often we start to think of them as parts of a global-scale environmental process rather than just local events and there is a growing understanding of the way we may be affected, no matter how far from the actual flames we live.

The confusing relationship between human activity and fires around the world

Some online comments on the recent disaster in Australia have been citing the reports of people convicted for setting fire to the bushes – according to the Australian police, since the beginning of November, 24 people have been charged for alleged arson. This kind of narrative often aims to exclude man-made climate change as the driving force behind the wildfires, framing the matter as if there could be one simple answer to the question of who is to blame. The reality is, however, much more complicated.

According to FAO Global Forest Fire Assessment, nowadays up to 90% of fires worldwide can be attributed to direct or indirect, deliberate or unintentional human activity. However, for thousands of years fires have been an intrinsic regulatory element of many ecosystems and have been occurring without anyone’s intervention. Since fires can well be triggered by natural events such as lightning, it is difficult to trace down the origin of each individual event and decide whether it was purely man-made or not.

How does climate change increase the risk and severity of wildfires? 

Nonetheless, one thing remains certain: the weather is a key factor in the creation of wildfires – it shapes the risk of them starting and it decides on how severe and widespread they end up being. A number of weather-related agents contribute to the final outcome of the fire, regardless of who, or what sparked it initially. These factors include temperature, humidity and precipitation, and they have all been altered by global warming.

According to a study by a team of researchers led by W. Matt Jolly, the global average length of the fire season grew by nearly 20% between 1979 and 2013. The exact climate factors that shape the risk of wildfires differ depending on the location. The general trend is, however, that climate change leads to changes in weather patterns that create conditions in which fires are more frequent and sprawl across bigger distances. Various areas around the world have been experiencing record-breaking temperatures over the past few years and in general, the hotter it is, the dryer (and thus prone to fires) the plants become due to evaporation. Some studies have also revealed that for every 1ºC of warming there is a 12 per cent increase in the frequency of lightning.

The immediate consequences of increased fire activity

The way wildfires affect various areas around the globe differs slightly depending on the location, but the general set of repercussions for the places affected remains the same and is easy to picture. Due to greater scale, fires increasingly reach areas inhabited by people – there is the loss of life, damage and loss of private property and infrastructure that aside from being traumatizing, generate enormous costs. One cannot also overlook the expenses of fire suppression, that, over the last decade have amounted to around 1.7 billion dollars in the US alone.

Fires pose a direct threat to human safety, but they can also have indirect negative health effects. As there are more and more instances of wildfires engulfing man-made infrastructure, the smoke no longer includes only the remnants of biomass – it also carries toxins and particulate matter generated from burning synthetic materials. During the California fires in 2019, several counties in this state have experienced poor air quality and an increase in emergency room visits was reported (mostly due to problems with breathing). The bushfires currently raging in Australia have covered entire cities, such as Sydney in hazardous smog that has brought the air quality down to the lowest levels ever recorded.

Another consequence of fires that poses a threat to people and to entire ecosystems is water pollution. In the light of current events in Australia, as rain will eventually fall down it is feared to wash huge quantities of ash and debris through the rivers into the drinking water reservoirs, endangering supplies for major cities. The side effect of debris making its way into freshwater may also be blooming of algae – toxic for humans and dangerous for aquatic life. The ash will eventually make its way into the oceans, and although the consequences of such occurrence have not been studied extensively, worries about the safety of marine life are not unjustified.

The long term consequences of frequent fires will affect everyone on Earth

Those who have never been directly affected by the fires may not consider them a threat with a global influence. The reports of disasters happening far away are distressing but after all, they cannot harm us right? Unfortunately, increased fire activity is a reason to worry, regardless of where we live. The most obvious reason is that fires are a symptom of progressing climate change, that will eventually affect everyone.

Moreover, fires themselves have the potential to escalate global warming. They are natural phenomena that have been occurring for thousands of years and under normal circumstances, the CO2 released during each event would be recaptured as the plants regenerate in the burned area. However, with the scale of the fires growing more and more, we can reach the point where too much CO2 is released and there is no going back.

Such moment is apparently drawing near on the Amazon forest – according to researchers from the University of Texas, the dry season has been getting longer and longer, especially in the south, making it increasingly difficult for the trees to survive with the reserves of water accumulated during the rainy season. When the length of the dry period reaches a tipping point, the forest’s maintenance abilities will be in serious danger. It can then become a source of emissions not only by falling victim to even more fires than currently but also due to degradation triggered by dry conditions. It is predicted that by 2030, 55 percent of the Amazon rainforest can be lost.

Even more worrying is the CO2 emission potential that lurks in the boreal forests, such as in Siberia, Alaska or Canada. It is estimated that around 30 percent of the carbon that exists on the planet’s surface are stored in the taiga with the majority of it hidden in the soil and peatlands that have been accumulating it throughout thousands of years. Boreal ecosystems are relatively dry and so every change in temperature has a substantial effect – in fact, climate change progresses there at twice the speed than on the rest of the planet. The fires of taiga have not made headlines to the extent of the Australian bushfires, but they have been occurring more and more often and it is predicted that a tipping point, where they become a major source of emissions will be reached this century. It is particularly dangerous given that the carbon released from the peatlands will take much longer to be recaptured than in the case of burned trees.

It is clear that although not everyone may feel the immediate effects of the increased fire activity, the long term repercussions will have an immense impact on the progress of climate change.

The future in the world with more and more fire

Huge-scale events of the magnitude comparable to the Australian fires can increasingly affect the national economies in the future, especially the ones already endangered with the recession. On the Australian example, it is visible that in the circumstances of such disaster consumers stop spending. This is true also for city-dwellers who feel less inclined to spend, faced with the negative news and the situation what poses a severe threat to business. There are also losses linked to decreased tourism, and additionally, economist John Quiggin projects that total costs of recovery from the fires may be as great as 70 billion US dollars.

What is more, the economies and infrastructure will have to adjust to an increased risk of fires, as the vulnerable areas will be growing in size. Resilience to this kind of cataclysms will have to be taken into account in more and more aspects of human activity – fire-resistant architecture or changes to infrastructure such as power lines construction will be needed. In the endangered areas, even more attention will be paid to protecting the freshwater supplies with water rationing becoming a frequent necessity. Agriculture will also be affected – there may appear regulations on the types of trees planted, excluding those very prone to fire such as eucalyptus. Water- effective crops may be promoted through subsidisation while water-thirsty ones, such as cotton, will be discouraged.

Although so far the severe effects of fires have not been felt worldwide it will change in the future with growing local problems taking a toll on a global economy, and with the accelerating climate change impacting every person on the globe.

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