Throughout the last year, wildfires and uncontrolled fires surged in areas around the globe. Australia experienced one of its worst bushfire seasons ever in 2019-2020. Earlier this year, Nepal’s forests were devastated by one of their worst wildfires in nearly a decade. The United States’ West Coast’s wildfires tore through large swaths of forests and land, reaching record size in 2020. Record droughts and heatwaves contribute to longer fire seasons and a larger area of coverage. Over the past decade, grasslands and savannahs have experienced less fires than they typically have in the past, whereas climates such as tropical rainforests have experienced more fires than ever before; as they are less accustomed to wildfires, these ecosystems are vulnerable to loss of life, biodiversity, and infrastructure. Contemporary fires destroy more land, property, and human life than ever before, and actions to address this risk have not been sufficient in responding to the growing crisis.
Uncontrolled fires take a heavy toll, from the loss of human life to the destruction of the environment in which they occur. Notably, societal impacts of fires include human fatality, destruction of homes and infrastructure, evacuation costs, and negative effects on the mental and physical health. Smoke and pollutants that stem from uncontrolled fires result in increased respiratory illness in people living around the affected area. Furthermore, fire-affected areas face destruction of economic stability; direct economic costs associated with fires are asset losses and firefighting costs, while indirect economic costs consist of reduced tourism, reduced value of forest industries, devalued land, and post-fire environmental rehabilitation. Perhaps most importantly, areas affected by these fires are vulnerable to ecological destruction. Fires can pollute the air and water, accelerate climate change, and rob wildlife of their natural habitats.
In order to prevent and respond to fires effectively, the causes for the contemporary increase in fires must be addressed; two of many contributors to the increased size and intensity of fires in recent years are climate change and human activity. Climate change’s effects create perfect conditions for fires to burn; global trends in climate predict longer dry seasons, more droughts, and an increase in aridity, which in turn cause drier vegetation and a longer fire season. Human activity increases the possibility of fires through providing ignition, changing natural ecosystems, and using fire for agricultural management. An effective plan to prevent wildfires requires addressing land-use planning, environmental management, natural resources, and technological development. Long term fire prevention strategies can include preservation of carbon sinks, such as forests and other natural resources. To respond to fires, some areas utilize early response fire management systems to evaluate dryness and weather and monitor growth. Strategies to address and manage fires vary greatly by region because of a variety of cultural, social and economic factors, as well as differing ecosystems and climates. In order to combat the destruction caused by fires, preventing fires as well as strategies to respond to fires must be addressed.
How can fires be prevented? What strategies can be utilized to respond to fire outbreaks? Should responses be the responsibility of the nation, the city, the community? What human contributions are there to fires, beyond controlled fires? Should substitutions for these contributions be explored? If so, how can we keep these fire prevention strategies equitable?