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Wildfires 2020: Still Debating Whether Climate Change is Real?

The biggest challenge in protecting pristine forest ecosystems, apart from deforestation, is combating wildfires. It has been reported that the number of fire outbreaks around the globe increased by 13% in April 2019 as compared to previous years.

And 2020 has been hit even worse.

Fires have been raging with ferocity, from the bustling Amazon to the lonely Arctic.

Australia was struck by an atrocious forest fire, and the propelled smoke reached upper parts of the atmosphere. Devastation could be seen from space. A multi-diverse domain consisting of temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome was lost, and millions of hectares of land were rendered barren – devoid of cover.

In February 2019, massive forest fires broke out in numerous places across the Bandipur National Park of the Karnataka state in India
In February 2019, massive forest fires broke out in numerous places across the Bandipur National Park of the Karnataka state in India

Far west in California, firefighters are continuing to battle some of the largest wildfires in recorded history. These fires are devastating, incessantly burning ecosystems and livelihoods of communities. In the winter of 2019-20, California only received half its normal levels of precipitation, suggesting the role of climate anomalies in increased incidences of wildfires.

With loss of forest cover in the first half of 2020 totalled at 307,000 hectares, which is 26% more than the same period in 2019, Brazil is heading towards ruin. Deforestation is increasing rapidly and is likely to result in intense fires in this Amazon biome. Brazilian Amazon hit a 13-year high in June. The Amazons were detected to receive 6,803 outbreaks of fires in July, about 28% more than the same period in 2019.

With Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir and Assam bearing the brunt, India is faced with fire calamities on top of water shortages apparent from the past few decades. Baghjan, Assam is an example of human-driven accidental blowout of natural gas in an oil well causing massive fires. With devastating impact on environment in and around the nearby Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, mass evacuation of locals, deterioration in human health, and continuing fires as of September 3, 2020 – months after the fire began – Baghjan area has reduced to a desolate crater as opposed to the pristine ecosystem it once represented.

Factors Responsible for Massive Wildfires

As per reports from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), factors responsible for increased incidence of wildfires are persistent hotter and drier weather conditions induced due to climate change, land conversion for agriculture, and pathetic forest management.

Climate change reinforces wildfires.

This is proved by the fact that fires seen today in different regions of the world are larger, more intense, and last longer than they previously used to. Unprecedented is a frequently used word nowadays when it comes to fire severity, with climate change making outliers, i.e. abnormally long fire seasons,alarmingly unpredictable. Releasing millions of tonnes of carbon, destroying vital ecosystems, decimating biodiversity, threatening property and livelihoods, impacting economies and people, and causing severe long-term health problems for millions around the world are drastic outcomes of unprecedented wildfires.

Devastation is imminent. People, climate, and our planet will suffer if such wildfires continue. To cite an example, there are an estimated 340,000 premature deaths – every year – from respiratory and cardiovascular issues associated with wildfire smoke.

Estimates from Previous Decades

Based on global records from 2000 – 2015, 85% of the surface area burned each year is located in tropical savannahs, making up 19% of the total land cover. Although forests constitute just about 10% of the total area burned, yet their higher carbon storage capacity holds responsibility for one-quarter of all fire-related carbon dioxide emissions. It has been observed that from 1979 to 2013, the global fire season length increased on an average by 19%. East Africa and Brazil usually undergo severe damages, with their forests and savannahs experiencing an average of over one month increase in the fire season.

Forests and Negligent Human Pursuits

Human activity, intentional or otherwise, is estimated to be responsible for 75% of all wildfires in recent years. In the Northern Hemisphere, most fires are due to negligence, such as industrial accidents, burning rubbish and debris, and agricultural overspill. Arson is also to blame at times. In Europe, negligence causes 95% of fires, while in the US, 84% of fires are caused by the same.

Use of slash and burn techniques, especially in South-east Asia and Africa, controlled fires for clearing ground for palm oil plantations in Indonesia, and increased encroachment into public and Indigenous Peoples’ lands in Brazil are some human interferences that lead to huge uncontrollable wildfires. And unbearably in the end, wildland-urban interfaces suffer the most in the face of forest fires.

What Has To Be Done

Forests are treasures of nature. It may not be the first time you’ve read about protecting forests or sustainable cultivation but today the need to revise this information is more than ever.

With a young world population of nearly 2 billion, requirement for preservation of biodiversity, both fauna and flora, has exceeded prior commitments. It has given rise to a now or never situation. So, we need to raise climate change ambition worldwide, and improve Paris Agreement accounting for emissions from non-anthropogenic (non human-driven) fires.

Halting deforestation, reinvesting in prevention, clarifying governance, coordinating policies, using a science-based approach to risk assessment and intervention, and bringing businesses on board are some of the important initiatives that need sufficient screentime. Wildfires are a global problem and need to be prioritized in public and health policy.

Global leader for forests at WWF, Fran Price, states:

“Good intentions on paper mean nothing if not followed up with real and effective actions on the ground. These actions need to focus on forests, where the fire crisis is at its worst”.

Global leader for forests at WWF, Fran Price.

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