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Firefighters attempt to extinguish a wildfire in the village of Kuel in Yakutia, Sakha, Russia on August 8, 2021

Firefighters attempt to extinguish a wildfire in the village of Kuel in Yakutia, Sakha, Russia on August 8, 2021. (Photo: Ivan Nikiforov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

UN Report Warns of 50% Increase in Wildfires by 2100 as Climate Crisis Rages

The leader of UNEP said that governments must "invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change."

Kenny Stancil

Wildfires are projected to rise 30% by 2050 and 50% by the end of the century due to the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency and land-use change, and governments worldwide are not ready, according to a new United Nations-backed report that calls for overhauling public spending, with a focus on improving prevention and preparedness.

"While the situation is certainly extreme, it is not yet hopeless."

Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, published Wednesday by the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal, a non-profit environmental communications center based in Norway, finds that even the Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires are at heightened risk in the coming decades.

"We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires," UNEP Executive Director Inger Anderson said in a statement, "by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change."

Increasingly destructive wildfires and the climate crisis are "mutually exacerbating," UNEP explained in a summary of the report. "Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons."

"At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests," added UNEP. This releases vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and "turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures."

The report—released ahead of next week's resumed session of the U.N. Environment Assembly, which is expected to bring representatives from 193 countries to Nairobi, Kenya—stresses that wildfire behavior must be better understood and risk management improved.

To that end, the authors call for combining data and monitoring systems with Indigenous knowledge and strengthening regional and international cooperation among scientists, policymakers, and emergency personnel to achieve an integrated approach to fire management that maintains and restores healthy ecosystems while meeting human needs.

Wildfires disproportionately affect the world's poorest inhabitants who have done the least to heat up the planet, the authors note, and the negative impacts persist years after the flames are extinguished—undermining sustainable development goals and worsening inequality.

Wildfire smoke endangers public health, for instance, causing chronic respiratory and cardiovascular problems that under-resourced health systems have less capacity to treat, the report explains. Low-income nations are also at a severe disadvantage when it comes to rebuilding in the wake of a blaze, as inadequate funding leaves some communities without sufficient post-disaster assistance.

"Emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported."

Biodiversity is also in jeopardy, as increasingly intense wildfires wreak havoc on vital habitats, watersheds, and wildlife, the report points out. The 2020 bushfires in Australia, for example, are estimated to have killed billions of wild and domesticated animals. Globally, wildfires have pushed some animal and plant species to the brink of extinction.

The way that governments are confronting the "global wildfire crisis" is inefficient and in need of a major shift, according to the authors, who note that typically, more than half of current expenditures are devoted to "reactive suppression," while a far smaller share is allocated to proactive mitigation efforts, including just 0.2% for planning.

Instead, they say, governments should adopt a so-called "Fire Ready Formula," wherein two-thirds of spending goes to planning (1%), prevention (32%), preparedness (13%), and recovery (20%), while about one-third (34%) is set aside for direct response.

The authors also call for stronger international standards to protect the safety and health of firefighters. Life-threatening hazards, such as smoke inhalation and entrapments, should be minimized, while the provision of adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery time between shifts should be ensured.

"Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported," said Anderson.

In their foreword to the report, Susan Gardner, director of UNEP's Ecosystems Division, and Peter Harris, managing director of GRID-Arendal, wrote that "while the situation is certainly extreme, it is not yet hopeless."


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