Preparation is key to managing future wildfire peaks

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A report commissioned by the United Nations and co-authored by two professors from the University of Sydney has pointed out that governments around the world are unprepared for a 50% increase in wildfires by the end of the century.

“Spreading Like Wildfire: The Growing Threat of Extraordinary Fires Across the Landscape” says climate change and land use changes will drive a global increase in extreme fires of 14% by 2030, from 30% by the end of 2050 and 50% by the end of the century. Fires attributed to climate change have ravaged 60,000 hectares of land in Western Australia, with La Nina causing further natural disasters due to flora flourishing in the wet conditions. The report even indicates that the level of fire risk in the Arctic has increased.

“Wildfires are different from ordinary seasonal fires – they are out of control,” says report co-editor and co-author Elaine Baker of the University of Sydney School of Geosciences.

“An example of this is the 2019-2020 Australian Black Summer bushfires, which killed 30 people and indirectly killed another 450 through smoke inhalation.”

The authors say an overhaul of government spending, planning and preparedness will ensure countries are prepared for an increase in wildfires. Direct responses to wildfires receive more than half of related expenditures, with planning and prevention accounting for less than 1% of expenditures.

“Response rather than prevention is ineffective and puts lives at risk. Forest fires usually only stop when the weather changes. Many actions can help reduce wildfire risk, including learning about indigenous knowledge and involving communities more in planning and prevention,” Baker said.

Report co-author Ayesha Tulloch from the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences says the solution to wildfire prevention lies in landscape management.

“Fire changes because human activities have altered the landscapes and weather conditions in which it occurs. Whatever we do is not going to magically stop, but if we manage our landscapes better, we can significantly reduce its impacts on us and on nature.

A number of animal and plant species have been displaced or wiped out due to wildfires, particularly the Australian bushfires of summer 2020.

“Some native animals and plants have had almost their entire range burned in these fires. They are now restricted to just a few last places, so burnt and unburnt places need to be carefully managed to ensure these species can return when the time comes,” says Tulloch.

The authors believe that attention should be paid to the adverse health effects of fires.

“The health impact of wildfires is rarely considered,” says Baker, who is calling for stricter international standards for the safety and health of firefighters. Fire, smoke and pollutants can damage lung tissue and exacerbate respiratory disease and heart disease.

“In New South Wales during the dark summer of 2019-20, for example, many residents – even those in inner-city Sydney neighborhoods – were exposed to the dangerous chemical cocktail of the fires. Not only was it physically harmful, but it cost the government over a billion dollars in health care costs.

Residential and commercial developments may result in additional exposure to fires. Undeveloped land far from cities is often unregulated, which can lead to further tragedies. In developing countries, this can be an even greater problem due to the lack of funds needed to repair and rebuild as well as to take care of those affected by the fire from a health point of view.

“A more coordinated approach among UN agencies could help developing countries prepare for and recover from the otherwise potentially long-term social, economic and environmental impacts of wildfires,” Baker said.

Working with indigenous peoples is one fire prevention strategy that the report says can strengthen preparedness.

“Indigenous Australians have skillfully used fire to care for their environment for thousands of years. There are a growing number of Indigenous ‘in country’ firefighting partnerships across Australia that focus on the cultural burning practices to prevent wildfires and conserve wildlife, but we need much more recognition and support for cultural Indigenous fire management in Australia and overseas,” says Tulloch.

The report further offers policies, legal framework and incentives for the implementation of fire safety strategies. Restoration of wetlands and building away from vegetation are examples of investments that could be made.

To read the full report, click here.

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