By Caroline Fouvet
The onset of summer correlates with increasingly large scale wildfires. In Europe, Spain and Portugal recently suffered from considerable blazes that took the lives of more than 60 people and devastated thousands of hectares. In the US, the situation is equally worrying as California is currently struggling with 14 simultaneous fires covering thousands of acres.
While summer wildfires are common in drought-stricken areas and under scorching temperatures, climate change is likely to compound the phenomenon and to bring it to a heightened level. A recent study by the universities of Idaho and Columbia points that anthropogenic climate change has contributed to doubling forest fire areas between 1984 and 2015 in the US, which accounts for the loss of an additional 4.2 million hectares.
Hot temperatures combined with droughts provide the perfect breeding ground for fires to spread, as they turn vegetation into kindling. The study’s authors also suggest that other climate-related phenomena could exacerbate the expansion of blazes such as more frequent lightning strikes, spread of tree pests and reduced spring soil moisture due to earlier snowmelt. The situation is similar in southern Europe where Spanish and Portuguese scientists link climate change effects to increased wildfire intensity. According to their estimates, forest fires could triple by 2075 as models predict a 2 to 3-degree temperature increase for summer months along with a 25%-decrease in precipitations.
Wildfires entail a strong societal cost, in addition to the immediate casualties and evacuation they provoke. Mobilising firefighters and airtankers requires authorities to allocate a large share of public money to this purpose. In 2015, the American federal government spent federal government alone spent more than $2.1 billion on firefighting.
Moreover, wildfires also have detrimental effects on people’s health since they increase particle matter in the air. In turn, air pollution contributes to respiratory diseases, cardiac issues, low birth rates and even premature deaths. Particles travel long distances and a localised wild fire can hence affect cities located far away.
Last but not least, climate-induced wild fires also exacerbate climate change as they release carbon in the air that adds up to the greenhouse gases (GHG) already present. The 2016 fires in Fort McMurray, Canada, released the equivalent of 5% of Canada’s annual GHG emissions. As such, the issue of wildfires illustrates that not only the industry, transportation and power sectors contribute to global warming, but that climate-induced phenomena can worsen the situation as well.
As increasingly hot summers are likely to become recurrent in the coming years, large-scale blazes and their far-reaching consequences will ensue. Enhanced preparedness such as effective fire proofing measures and forest management could then help to both adapt to and mitigate climate change.