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.