From Australia to Alaska, forest fires are changing our world irreversibly.

The world watches in horror as Australian bushfires, the worst in decades, engulf large parts of the country, with Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) bearing the brunt. Over 2,100 homes have been destroyed or damaged nationwide, and at least 27 people have died so far, with the toll expected to increase given that a number of people are still missing.

While Australia’s unprecedented bushfires have captured headlines and are leading to mass evacuations, it is not the only country affected by this phenomenon. In 2019 alone, major wildfires affected several other countries and ecological hotspots globally, including the Amazon rainforest (Brazil), California and Alaska (United States), Canary Islands (Spain), France, Greece, Turkey and Indonesia. Alarmingly, major wildfire activity occurred even in the Arctic Circle, with fires raging across Greenland as well as Siberia and other Russian provinces.

Scientists estimate that the destruction to Australia’s biodiversity is irreparable – bushfires have spread to subtropical rainforest areas; billions of animals are feared dead, with at least one species considered extinct; and large swathes of natural habitat in sensitive ecological areas have been burnt. With each passing day, the shocking magnitude of the devastation is unraveling: thousands of bird carcasses are washing up on beaches, and critically injured kangaroos are being euthanized.

Prescribed fires restore natural balance of many ecosystems

Although wildfires have become a flashpoint in recent years, with the ongoing bushfires in Australia reaching cataclysmic proportions, they are not events of recent occurrence. In fact, wildfires (or forest fires) have been burning for millions of years and are as “as old as the forests themselves.” They are not confined to a specific geography or environment. Due to the devastation caused by major wildfires, they have achieved notoriety. Prescribed fires, on the other hand, are considered an acceptable practice to restore the natural balance of many global ecosystems.

Prescribed fires have many benefits. Many plant species do not flower or reproduce unless they are burned. Seeds of many plants need fire (direct or indirect) to germinate. The natural effects of fire eradicate disease, eliminate invasive plant and insect species, release nutrients into the soil, and allow native species such as grasslands to grow again. They also help in clearing the accumulation of hazardous fuel in the form of dead plants, leaves and branches which make forests denser and are responsible for increasing the intensity of wildfires, especially under drought conditions.

Climate change and wildfires: A vicious ‘circle of fire’

Wildfires can result from natural causes such as lightning or heat from the sun, or inadvertent human causes such as unattended campfires, unextinguished cigarette butts, and sparks from engines/vehicles. All human activity, however, is not unintentional.

The Amazon rainforest is a case in point. It is widely perceived that since Jair Bolsonaro took over as Brazil’s president in 2019, his administration's radical stance of opening up the Amazon to more development accelerated rapid deforestation. Ranchers and farmers were given a free hand to clear rainforest to divert land to agricultural and other uses – forest fires were not only permitted but also encouraged.

Why, then, is global warming being implicated as the culprit in recent discussions on wildfires? While global warming may not cause wildfires, it increases the risk of major wildfires and lengthens the traditional fire season. Put another way, global warming is contributing to higher frequencies and intensity of wildfires. The following infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists explains how climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires:

The story does not end there. The link between global warming/climate change and forest fires has become a vicious ‘circle of fire.’ Raging wildfires release massive amounts of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, which serves to aggravate an already perilous situation. That is still not all. Wind can carry soot from smoke plumes over long distances and deposit it on glaciers. In 2017, scientists established that soot from Canadian wildfires were deposited on Greenland’s ice sheet. Darkening of ice increases sunlight absorption and accelerates its melting.

Our world is changing irreversibly, but warning signs continue being ignored

While Australia burned, its Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was vacationing in Hawaii and hosting a New Year’s Eve party featuring fireworks. In Brazil, Bolsonaro tried, audaciously, to deflect blame for the Amazon wildfires to environmental groups and NGOs, who, he claimed, set fire to the rainforest. Actor Leonardi DiCaprio came under particular fire from Bolsonaro; he was accused of donating money to some of these NGOs to set fire to the Amazon.

Morrison and Bolsonaro are only two among many world leaders and government officials who are trivializing not only forest fires but the larger, graver issue of climate change. While large parts of the world change irreversibly, are we ignoring the warning signs? In the last couple of years, several countries faced severe heatwaves and record-breaking summer temperatures; 22 million people were estimated to be displaced from their homes in 2019 alone due to extreme weather events; and flood patterns in Europe are undergoing significant changes due to global warming.

The threat from major forest fires is increasing at an alarming rate every year. It is now affecting every continent and environment, including the Arctic Circle. While there is no single solution for a problem of such epic proportions, it requires the global community to come together to prevent future catastrophes. In September 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking at the Alliance for Rainforests event in New York, warned that forests needed to be protected before “before fires consume our future.”

As the atmosphere fills with smoke and ash, our future grows dark. Deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate: every year, 7 million hectares of forest are lost. These are not localized disasters but part of a global threat. We will not overcome the climate emergency without safeguarding our planet’s very lungs.” (UN Secretary-General António Guterres)

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Gautam Mehra