Everywhere is on fire. Here’s why the climate crisis is to blame

Heat and drought are combining to create the conditions for dangerous wildfires around the world

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Friday 22 July 2022 17:30 BST
Wildfires surround paused train in Spain

Wildfires are raging across large parts of Europe amid severe heatwaves this week.

In the UK, which is unprepared and unused to such events, blazes broke out following a day of record 40C heat. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said Tuesday was the busiest day for the city’s firefighters since the Second World War.

In Portugal, Spain and France, fires have blanketed the countrysides, generating shocking images and sending firefighters rushing out to quash the burning.

So far this year, over 1.1 million acres have burned across Europe, which is vastly more than the average for the past 15 years of just 270,000. And the climate crisis could make these intesne fire years far more normal, drought and heatwaves – two of the key ingredients for fires – become more intense and more common.

This may be even more true around the Mediterranean region, which is warming 20 per cent faster than the rest of the world.

But this problem isn’t localized to Europe. Over the past decade, wildfires have grown larger and more erratic across the entire globe. In 2021, the monster Dixie Fire roared through almost one million acres in northern California, leaving a burn scar the size of Rhode Island.

Over seven million acres burned in Indonesia in 2019, leading to respiratory issues for hundreds of thousands of people. That same year, bushfires erupted in Australia, killing hundreds of people and destroying tens of millions of acres of land. An estimated three billion animals died or were displaced across devastated landscapes.

While wildfires have been a feature of some landscapes for millennia, they are now erupting with unprecedented size and ferocity in new parts of the world as the climate crisis worsens.

The planet’s temperature continues to rise, mostly due to emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. This heat is bringing more frequent and intense heatwaves and droughts, says the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a perfect storm of conditions for wildfires to ignite.

Prolonged drought is especially dangerous for fires. Dried-out vegetation such as grasses and fallen leaves burn quickly and intensely, acting as kindling that can turn sparks or small flames into massive blazes.

Fires not only pose risk to property and infrastructure, but can cause serious health impacts. Fires release vast amounts of pollution into the air, including PM2.5, minuscule particles which can lodge deep in the lungs. This is especially dangerous for people with heart and lung disease, says the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Fires also pose danger to those beyond their immediate vicinity. The ferocious 2020 wildfire season in northern California not only darkened skies in San Francisco to a Bladerunner-esque orange, but also lowered air quality as far away as New York.

Wildfires cause a cascade of environmental harm. Flames scour the landscape of vegetation and destabilize soil, which can lead to erosion even after fires have been put out. Destabilised landscapes heighten the risk of landslides, particularly during storms, which in turn can cause water contamination as sediment pours into rivers and lakes.

The world has warmed 1.1-1.2 degrees Celsius over the past 150 years, leaving much of it hotter and drier, reports the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate science.

If the world reaches 2C, heatwaves that once occurred every 10 years will happen about every other year, the IPCC reports. Droughts that happened once every 10 years will happen more than twice as often, the panel adds.

Fires will also be more intense, leading to even more wildfire risk.

The weather conditions surrounding the 2019 Australian bushfires were significantly more likely due to human-caused warming, according to World Weather Attribution, a team of international scientists who examine the role of the climate crisis in extreme events.

Some areas will be more prone to devastating blazes. Huge growth in fire activity is predicted across Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil and Western Australia as the climate crisis grows, a 2022 United Nations report found.

Countries which have not historically experienced large wildfires are also predicted to see an increase, the UN report added, including parts of Eastern Europe and Indonesia.

The US West is proving to be a wildfire hotspot. Increasing the risk is a two-decade megadrought which would not have been possible without the climate crisis. A recent study found that the past 22 years have been the driest in the region for at least 1,200 years.

Between 1983 and 1993, an average of 2.6 million acres burned across the US, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). In the past decade, that number shot up to almost 7.5m acres – nearly a three-fold increase.

Much of that growth has happened in the west, especially in California, Oregon, Washington and Oklahoma. Most of the largest wildfires in recorded California history have occurred since 2000, with the eight biggest occurring in the past five years.

Over half of all properties in the US are at risk of wildfire, a recent report found. Some 1.5 million homes are at “extreme” risk, meaning they have at least a 26 per cent chance of burning in the next 30 years. Almost another 8.7 million have at least a 6 per cent chance of burning in that time span.

But while the climate crisis is the underlying, driving force of more severe wildfires, it is not the only factor.

In the US, decades of fire suppression in some areas have led to a build-up of flammable material like downed wood and leaves, which can allow fires to spread quickly. In Europe, part of the reason for this year’s intense flames was that many people have moved out of the countryside and into cities, leaving rural areas less tended and full of more potential fuel.

Fire agencies are reintroducing the practice of prescribed burns, or “good” fire, which has long been advocated by Indigenous communities. In this practice, officials light fires on purpose in controlled areas to get rid of dried-out fuel loads such as downed wood and leaves.

But hotter and more erratic weather conditions are now occasionally making this practice risky. In New Mexico this spring, prescribed burns accidentally caused the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, which has burned over 340,000 acres – an area bigger than Los Angeles.

Larger, more frequent wildfires will create dangerous feedback loops, the UN warns.

Wildfires release vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), a planet-heating greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. This in turn adds even more warming, creating more intense heat and drought.

That prospect is especially concerning in the Arctic, where huge amounts of carbon and methane are stored in peatlands and permafrost. In 2020, a study in the journal Nature reported that Arctic fires released 244 megatonnes of CO2 – the same as 65 coal-fired power plants.

Alaska, where a significant area of the state is within the Arctic Circle, one of the worst fire seasons on record is underway. More than 3 million acres have burned since the beginning of this year, and while most have been in the forests, some have hit the tundra – home to permafrost.

Last year over 18 million acres – fifteen times the size of Grand Canyon National Park – burned across Russia, Reuters reports, many in the cold and carbon-rich region of Siberia.

AP contributed to this report

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