Profile of Global Vegetation Fire Challenges

By Lindon Pronto and Johann Goldammer, Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC)

This article appears in the September 2016 Newsletter of the Commonwealth Forestry Association

Every year, roughly an average of about 600 million hectares of vegetated lands is affected by land-use fires and wildfires (Mouillot and Field, 2005). Worldwide, wildfires are trending toward longer burning periods, heightened severity, greater area burned and increased frequency. Consequences include detriment to environment, socio-economic costs including threats to human health and security, and higher shares of emissions into the atmosphere. Conversely, due in large part to human activities such as expanding infrastructure, industrial activities, or mismanagement of fire, fire regimes are shifting dramatically and creating positive feedback cycles in sensitive ecosystems, notably in the Arctic tundra (Mack et al., 2011), in peatlands (Page et al., 2002), and in tropical rain forests (Cochrane and Laurance, 2002). Sensitive, non-fire-adapted areas can contain highly concentrated carbon stocks, which are rapidly released during fire events with devastating consequences both locally and globally. For example, fires burning in Indonesia alone, during the El Niño dry season in I997 and 1998 produced an equivalent of up to 40% of the global gross carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels for that year (Spessa, 2013). The Indonesian haze crisis this past year often put up daily CO2 amounts higher than the entire European Union industrial economy (Huijnen et al., 2016). Globally, emissions resulting from vegetation fire can constitute one-third of total releases of carbon dioxide annually (Page et al., 2002). The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) of Indonesia, estimated the damages to the national economy caused by fires in 2015 amounted to US$16.5 billion, or around 1.9 percent of the country’s GDP; to put a price tag on fires globally is impossible. In addition to the environmental and economic impacts, a humanitarian dimension is growing with some models indicating the annual average number of premature deaths resulting from vegetation fire smoke exposure, range between 180,000 (Lelieveld et al., 2015) and 339,000 (Johnston et al., 2012). While much emphasis is placed on the negative effects of fire – in many instances more fire is exactly what is needed to reduce some of these consequences. For example, applying “prescribed fire” in fire-adapted environments can contribute to lowering the severity of wildfire events which can wreak havoc on communities in the wildland urban interface (WUI), where measures have not been taken to reduce fuel buildups.

In many parts of the world areas at high wildfire risk are contaminated by the heritage of armed conflicts and industrial or nuclear accidents. In Europe large tracts of lands are contaminated by unexploded ordnance stemming from the World Wars and other more recent armed conflicts. The high risk of injuries and deadly fatalities due to uncontrolled explosions or intake of radioactive smoke or dust particles require specialized equipment to protect fire management personnel. This specialized wildfire suppression tank, operated by a German company on UXO-contaminated lands in Brandenburg State (around Berlin), is a converted T-55 combat tank with unchanged armor. It allows safe application of 11,000 liters of water and water additives for fighting dangerous fires. This kind of technology should be used on radioactively contaminated terrain in places like Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (e.g. in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone). Photo: GFMC/DiBuKa.

Political Challenges

Political challenges facing fire managers range from the sensationalized affair of protecting celebrity mansions in Hollywood Hills, to coordinating firefighting efforts between two warring countries when border-crossing fires threaten villages. Continue reading here:

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