According to a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal, climate change and land-use change will cause more frequent and intense wildfires, with a global increase of severe fires of up to 14 percent by 2030, 30 percent by 2050, and 50 percent by the end of the century.
Wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations, which most of the times cannot afford to rebuild the areas struck by fire. These fires significantly affect people’s respiratory and cardiovascular health, damage watersheds, lead to soil erosion causing more problems for waterways, and leave highly contaminated waste behind. Moreover, wildlife and its natural habitats are not spared either: many animal species are pushed on the bring of extinction by severe and prolonged fires.
Wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating. Through rises in temperatures, increased frequency and duration of droughts, low relative humidity, lightning storms, and strong winds, climate change leads to hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons. At the same time, by ravaging carbon-rich ecosystems such as rainforests and peatlands, wildfires contribute to climate change.
Currently, direct responses to wildfires receive over half of related expenditures, while prevention and planning receive less than one percent. The new report calls on governments to adopt a “Fire Ready Formula,” with two thirds of funds devoted to planning, preparedness, prevention, and recovery, and only one third left for response.
“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP. “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.”
The restoration of ecosystems is highly important for mitigating the risk of wildfires before they occur and repairing what has been destroyed in their aftermath. Some of the essential investments into prevention, preparedness, and recovery should include wetlands and peatlands restoration, building at a distance from vegetation, and preserving open space buffers.
The report concludes with a call for stronger international standards for the safety and health of firefighters, including raising awareness of the risks of smoke inhalation, providing access to adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery, and minimizing the risks of life-threatening entrapments.
The full UNEP report is available for download here.