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UN experts warn of increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires


Climate change and changes in land use are making wildfires more frequent and intense, with extreme fires predicted to increase by up to 50% by the end of the century, warns a United Nations report.

According to the experts who produced the report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), based in Nairobi, even the Arctic, until now virtually immune, faces a growing risk of wildfires.

According to the document, released today, the climate crisis and land use change will result in a global increase in extreme fires of up to 14% in 2030, 30% by the end of 2050 and 50% by the end of the century.

“Lightning and human carelessness have always caused wildfires, but climate change caused by human activity, changes in land use, and mismanagement of land and forests mean that wildfires more often find the right conditions to be destructive”, says the study, which had the participation of the Norwegian Environmental Centre GRID-Arendal.

“Forest fires burn longer and impose more heat on places where they have always occurred, but they are also appearing in unexpected places, such as dry peat bogs or during permafrost thaw,” added the UNEP report, which involves all continents.

In addition to destroying large parts of some of the planet’s last havens of biodiversity, such as Brazil’s Great Pantanal, the fires are also emitting huge amounts of polluting gases into the atmosphere, facilitating rising temperatures, drier and more fires.

Experts advise governments to involve indigenous leaders in fire management, as well as invest in forest fire planning, prevention and recovery, rather than just focusing on putting them out.

They also ask governments to adopt a new investment formula, with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness and recovery, and the remaining third to the response.

Currently, direct responses to wildfires receive more than half of related expenditures, while planning and prevention receive less than one percent.

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, adding: “We have to minimize the risk of extreme fires by being better prepared – investing more in reducing the fire risk, work with local communities and strengthen the global commitment to combating climate change.”

Likewise, the report underlined the importance of the international community, through the United Nations, also getting involved in fire management, which until now is almost the exclusive responsibility of national governments.

“Wildfires should be placed in the same category of global humanitarian response as major earthquakes and floods,” the UNEP study noted.

From 2002 to 2016, around 423 million hectares were burned each year, a total area equivalent to that of the European Union.

Africa is the continent most affected by these fires, accumulating about 67% of the annual global area burned.

“We must learn to better manage and mitigate the risk of wildfires that threaten human health and our livelihoods, biodiversity and the global climate,” said Susan Gardner, director of UNEP’s Division of Ecosystems.

The experts further warn that wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations and have an impact that spans days, weeks and even years after the flames subside, impeding progress towards the UN’s sustainable development goals and deepening social inequalities.

In the document, they argue that ecosystem restoration is “an important way” to mitigate the risk of forest fires. Restoration of wetlands and reintroduction of species such as beavers, recovery of peat bogs, maintenance of distance between vegetation and preservation of buffer zones with open spaces are some examples of essential investments in prevention, preparation and recovery.

The report was released a few days before the 5th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), which will take place from 28 February to 2 March in Nairobi.