Our directory of things of interest

Measuring wildfires

While it may not always appear so, wildfires are decreasing in number While it may not always appear so, wildfires are decreasing in number
12 Jul
Despite popular opinion, global wildfires are becoming less, not more, frequent, albeit with some major regional exceptions

From South Australia to California, Borneo to Alberta, out of control forest fires are seemingly ever present, with supposedly once-in-a-generation events happening increasingly frequently, and with greater severity. Whether through wildlife habitat loss, the vast outpouring of carbon emissions, or even the loss of human life, they are seen as a big, smoky canary-in-the-coal-mine with regards to the environmental challenges facing the planet.

However, the commonly-perceived idea that wildfires are happening more often is being challenged. Professor Stefan Doerr and Dr Cristina Santin from Swansea University’s College of Science carried out a detailed analysis of global and regional data on fire occurrence, severity and its impacts on society. Their conclusion: ‘the data available to date do not support a general increase in area burned or in fire severity for many regions of the world. Indeed there is increasing evidence that there is overall less fire in the landscape today than there has been centuries ago, although the magnitude of this reduction still needs to be examined in more detail.’

Instead, they see the perception of increasing wildfires as more of a social than a physical issue. ‘In fire-prone environments, fire is part of the natural cycle and often key for maintaining the ecosystem’s health,’ explains Santin. ‘People in larger cities and in non-fire-prone areas typically have the wrong understanding that “fire is bad”, without doubt related to what they see on the news. This message is very much related to our growing connectivity and the fact than in a few seconds the fires burning at the other side of the world are on our TV screens.’

We cannot suppress fire 100 per cent, just as we cannot avoid floods or earthquakes, but we can, and we must, learn the best way to coexist with it

Nevertheless, their research does still support the theory that the future is likely to see a significant increase in life-threatening wildfires, because of both a warming climate and land use changes pushing human settlements into more wildfire-prone regions. ‘We don’t say fire is not bad,’ continues Santin. ‘We don’t say fires are not a problem because the overall area burnt globally has not increased recently. Indeed, while some areas have less fire, we are already seeing important increases in some regions, such as parts of western North America, due to increases in fire season length. We only say that the fire reality needs to be understood and accepted. Fire has been on Earth for over 400 million years and, due to climate change, fire activity is expected to increase – and it is already doing so – in many parts of the world. We cannot suppress fire 100 per cent, just as we cannot avoid floods or earthquakes, but we can, and we must, learn the best way to coexist with it.’

Santin’s hope is that the more people this message reaches, the easier it will be for society to move towards more sustainable behaviours and policies when it comes to dealing with wildfires.

This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

Adventure Canada


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


Public transport in India could be on the verge of…


To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…


IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…


Increased carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater ecosystems


The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…


Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…


The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…


Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires


Cape Town is edging closer to ‘Day Zero’, the long-feared…


Ongoing restoration projects are breathing new life into Florida’s Everglades


Despite protests, an experimental pedestrianisation system is proving to be…


National Archives map historian, Rose Mitchell, highlights some of the…


An expedition into the Jordanian desert is helping teachers and…


Trivia fans take note, Mount Hope in the British Antarctic…


An enormous hydropower development in Ethiopia is expected to put…


From nuclear warnings to whether your favourite band will ‘make…


New maps of global reptile distribution reveal significant gaps in…


Indigenous conservation schemes in Peru can be more effective than…


How are the EU member nations faring in the fight…


Violence against women violates human rights, and the lack of…