How do we fight wildfires as temperatures rise?

How do we fight wildfires as temperatures rise

How do we fight wildfires as temperatures rise?

For hundreds of millions of years, fire has been a natural occurrence in forests. However, due to climate change, we are now witnessing unprecedented wildfires that burn hotter and longer. This is partly because declining rainfall and longer droughts are making forests extremely dry, creating the perfect conditions for fires to spread rapidly.

In Chile’s Valparaiso region, firefighters are currently battling fierce forest fires that have tragically claimed the lives of at least 112 people. President Gabriel Boric announced a two-day mourning period as the nation expects the death toll to rise.

The devastating impact of climate change-fueled fires was also felt in Canada in 2023, where a staggering 18.4 million hectares (45.5 million acres) were engulfed in flames, causing massive clouds of smoke to drift over parts of the US. Italy, Greece, and Spain also experienced significant fires during the summer of 2023.

How do we fight wildfires as temperatures rise

Even in Australia, the Black Summer megafires of 2019–20 were so immense that they burned nearly 60 million acres (24 million hectares), including wet forests that were once considered fire-resistant.

Unfortunately, as we continue to contribute to global warming by burning fossil fuels, these fires are projected to worsen. This poses a grave threat to both human lives and wildlife, highlighting the urgent need to address climate change and its devastating consequences.

Hamish Clarke, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia, expressed concern about the current progress in reducing risk. According to Clarke, urgent action is needed to alter our course and significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

In a co-authored article on bushfire risk in Australia, Clarke emphasized that climate change is surpassing the ability of our ecological and social systems to adapt. He also highlighted that fire management is currently at a critical juncture.

Now, let’s explore three crucial areas where fire management is striving to adapt to the challenges posed by a changing climate.

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Fighting fire with fire

How do we fight wildfires as temperatures rise

Fighting fire with fire is a well-established strategy in many fire-prone countries like the United States, Australia, Portugal, Spain, Canada, France, and South Africa. Controlled or prescribed burning, typically done during cooler months, helps reduce the risk of wildfires by reducing the amount of flammable material available to fuel the fires. This technique, also known as hazard reduction, has proven to be highly effective in reducing the intensity and severity of fires.

For controlled burning to be truly effective, one must implement it on a large scale. According to Victor Resco de Dios, an associate professor of forest engineering at Spain’s University of Lleida, substantial hazard reduction would require prescribed burning across 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of land, especially in regions like Europe and countries around the Mediterranean that are experiencing increasingly severe summer wildfires.

Unfortunately, climate change has posed a challenge to prescribed burning. The risks associated with controlled burning have increased due to changing climate conditions. As a result, the US Forest Service recently announced a pause in planned burning operations in national forests across the country, following a rare incident in New Mexico where a controlled burning operation turned into one of the worst wildfires in the state’s history.

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Low-Intensity Burning Practices in the US and Australia

How do we fight wildfires as temperatures rise

First Nations communities in the United States and Australia have long employed a method of controlled burning to mitigate the risk of wildfires. Indigenous communities utilized “frequent low-intensity” burning for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. By conducting controlled burns during the cooler months, they were able to create a grassy and park-like landscape that not only reduced the threat of wildfires but also preserved biodiversity.

In a report published in February 2022, the authors highlight the detrimental consequences of non-Indigenous bushfire management strategies, which prioritize fire suppression rather than active management. This approach has led to a catastrophic risk, as it has resulted in an accumulation of highly flammable fuel in Australia’s forests since the British invasion.

However, since the 1990s, Indigenous communities have regained ownership of their ancestral lands, allowing them to revive and implement their traditional fire management techniques. In the Kimberly region of northern Australia, Indigenous people have successfully practiced controlled burning during the cooler and drier season, effectively reducing the risk of wildfires.

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Deploying drones to combat wildfires

Utilizing technology has become increasingly crucial in combating large-scale fires, although prevention remains the best approach. Firefighters are already benefiting from satellite systems managed by organizations like NASA, which aid in monitoring the movement of fires worldwide. However, drones are now emerging as a localized and advanced tool for fire suppression.

In Finland, where forests cover 75% of the land, a project is currently underway to enhance the detection of forest fires using AI-based drone technology. The FireMan consortium, a research group including Professor Eija Honkavaara from the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute (NLS), is spearheading this initiative.

Following the devastating burning of 400,000 hectares of European forest in 2019, the number increased by 25% the following year. Victor Resco de Dios predicts that Central Europe and even Scandinavia, with their hotter and drier climate, will likely face megafires in the coming decades.

Eija Honkavaara stated, “Drones can provide us with real-time information on the progress of the fire front, as well as the height and intensity of the flames.”

These drones not only provide immediate remote data but also come equipped with sensors that can penetrate smoke to accurately assess the magnitude of the fire.

However, a reliable mobile internet connection is essential in remote areas to fully utilize the potential of these drones.

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How to climate-proof forests

Victor Resco de Dios stated that wildfires have existed on Earth for 420 million years and that vegetation has adapted to them. However, experts argue that the regenerative abilities of forests may no longer be enough. In order to protect vulnerable forest ecosystems from frequent wildfires, it is necessary to plant more climate and drought resilient plant species. Resco de Dios suggests considering future climates and planting species from drier regions, rather than relying solely on native species. This will ensure that the forests adapt to the climate of the coming decades.

A study conducted after the Black Summer wildfires in Australia revealed that over 250 plant species were facing difficulties in effective regeneration due to the increasing frequency of fires in their habitats. Resco de Dios emphasizes the need to plan for the future, as many species may no longer be suitable for the changing climate by the turn of the century.

To achieve this, it will be crucial to closely manage regenerating forests for several decades after they have burned. Neglecting this responsibility and simply planting trees without proper management would only contribute to future wildfires, warns Resco de Dios.

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