A forest fire in Berdigestyakh, Siberian Russia. A forest fire in Berdigestyakh, Siberian Russia. 

Study warns of growing threat of wildfires

Even the Arctic faces rising wildfire risk, experts say ahead of the UN Environment Assembly next week.

By Vatican News staff reporter

Wildfires are projected to rise by 50 per cent by the end of the century due to the climate crisis and changes in land use, according to a report backed by the United Nations.

The study published on Wednesday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal, a non-profit environmental communications centre based in Norway, found that even the Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires face elevated risk.   

The report titled Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, comes ahead of the resumed session of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, February 28-March 2. Representatives from 193 countries are scheduled to attend the meeting.

Support and investment

The authors of the report are calling for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting their investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.

“Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported. We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.

Repercussions of wildfires

Wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations, with impacts that last long after the flames subside – impeding progress towards sustainable development and deepening social inequalities. 

Smoke from wildfires directly affects people’s health, for example, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts, while the cost of rebuilding can be beyond the means of low-income countries.

Wildlife, as well as natural habitats, are also rarely spared. Wildfires have even pushed some animal and plant species closer to extinction. The 2020 bushfires in Australia are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals. 

Mutually exacerbating

Wildfires and climate change are “mutually exacerbating”, according to the report.  “Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons,” UNEP said.

“At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.”

The report underscores the critical need to better understand the behaviour of wildfires. Prevention calls for a combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge, and for stronger regional and international cooperation.

‘Fire Ready Formula’

The authors of the study are calling on governments to adopt a new 'Fire Ready Formula', with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for response. Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than one per cent.

The authors further call for stronger international standards for the safety and health of firefighters and for reducing the threats they face on the job.

This includes raising awareness of the risks of smoke inhalation, minimizing the potential for life-threatening entrapments, and providing them with access to adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery between shifts.  (Source: UNEP)

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23 February 2022, 16:22