Biodiversity Nepal
For the Future Generation

Are wildfires increasing or intensifying?

Global burned areas have declined in the last two decades; however wildfires are getting more intense & severe in some parts of the globe.

Patrick Orton

Wildfire is an essential natural phenomenon. Over half of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems are fire-dependent. The ecosystem is resilient to certain fire regimes as well, however anthropogenic factors are altering the natural phenomenon since the last century making the ecosystem vulnerable to wildfire. But are wildfires increasing?

Contradictory to news reports, data shows decline in global burned areas in the last two decades. The total number of square kilometers burned globally each year has dropped by 25% since 2003 with a major drop in burned areas in Africa, the ‘fire continent’. Population growth that resulted in the bigger influence of the human to the African ecosystems have diminished the amount of speculated wildfires where 70% of global wildfires used to occur. But the situation is different in other parts of the globe.

Fire intensity & severity have increased in recent times which  should be major concerns rather than evaluating wildfires based on the area burned. Wildfires have peaked in certain parts of the world which had never experienced severe wildfires before (tropical forests).

Historical fires occur frequently with low severity & some ecosystems are adapting to it like ponderosa pine forest. However, ecosystems which are not adapted to fire are experiencing severe wildfires which may lead to permanent changes in vegetation structure & composition, wild populations & soil erosion. 

Zombie wildfire in Arctic. Photo by Thomas Shambler

Fires in Canada, the Mediterranean, Siberia & Australia are increasing in recent years. Northern hemisphere in particular is experiencing severe wildfires. Fire season is predicted to prolong by 20 days by the end of century in northern high latitudes. And 2020 has become the most active fire year in Southern Amazon since 2012.

In September, around 8000 fires occurred in the world’s largest wetlands of the Pantanal region of South America which was four times the month’s historical average. Scientists are pointing out the warmer ocean temperature as the cause prompting extreme droughts in the Pantanal region.

An aerial view of fires in the Pantanal, September 12, 2020. Mauro Pimentel/AFP

Furthermore, unsustainable fire management policies are another main driver for increasing intensity & severity of wildfires. Along with maintaining ecosystem dynamics, fire also prevents large fuel loading that results in severe wildfire. However, wildfires are often perceived negatively.

Around the 21st century, fire suspension policies were applied around the world that completely excluded wildfires from ecosystems. This led to ecosystem function unnaturally making forests highly prone to ignition. Fire suspension in the past is one reason behind ongoing wildfires in California. Complete exclusion of fire from the ecosystem is henceforth, not a solution.

About 96% of the global wildfires are caused by humans, some due to negligence while others due to intention. Only 4% occurs naturally. Humans have coexisted with fires for hundreds and thousands years. Slash & burn techniques used by farmers are likewise old one. However, with growing time forest resources & lands are getting highly commercialized leading to large-scale deforestation by burning, mostly in tropics

Palm oil plantation next to burned forest near in South Kalimantan Province, Indonesia, September, 2019. Photo by Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Wildfire haze from Indonesia to all over Southeast Asia is a worrying example of this. Tropical forest & peatland areas of Indonesia bigger than the Netherlands have burned in the last 5 years for palm oil plantations. Moreover, human-settlements have increased in fire-prone landscapes, increasing the losses of homes & lives  along with decline in resilience of ecosystems to wildfires.

Although the severity of wildfires in Nepal is low compared to other parts of the world, wildfires pose the biggest threats to the country’s forest due to the unplanned burning of the undergrowth in the forest. Nepal loses around 200,000 hectares of forest cover to wildfires every year. Almost all wildfires that occur are human-induced, yet the country lacks forest fire management efforts and resources.

Wildfire is inevitable. Indeed, climate change is fueling the fire proneness and wildfire risk will continue. So, right information in understanding the need of fire and associated risk and benefit should be rightfully evaluated – because in the end fire, as a part of nature, is needed for sustainable coexistence of man in the changing environmental conditions. Maybe we should go back to history to better understand the fire.


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