With wildfires ravaging Canada, devastating coastal Maui and sparking elsewhere around the world, it’s been a bad year for fire. In our hard-hit neighbor to the north, an area about the size of Mississippi has burned, while Maui’s blazes were the deadliest in over a century. These punishing wildfires — occurring more frequently and devouring more land — seem to be a new normal.
Unsurprisingly, a major factor behind this is global warming. Higher temperatures and droughts dry out fuels like grasses, debris, shrubs and trees during the fire season, leaving forests like a giant tinderbox waiting to be set off. With more active and longer fire seasons on the horizon, projections for the future look bleak. The United Nations Environment Program predicts a 50 percent increase in the risk of extreme wildfires globally by the year 2100.
Slowing down the juggernaut of global warming is complex, but is combatting this evil spinoff as daunting? Fortunately, we can take steps to prevent wildfires that are good for the environment, too.
The woes of wildfires
It’s hardly a shocker that wildfires come with substantial costs for humans, the environment and the economy. Wildfires caused $81.6 billion in damages in the U.S. from 2017 to 2021, nearly 10 times the amount for the previous four-year period, according to the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Fires destroy and damage properties, while other social and economic losses — displacing individuals, ruining businesses and driving away tourists — are quick to follow. However, wages and employment can actually rise temporarily when large wildfires occur, presumably due to fire suppression efforts in these counties.
Wildfires also damage the environment. They degrade watersheds, lead to soil erosion and harm wildlife populations. And, through a positive feedback loop, they fuel climate change. Canadian wildfires have emitted 300 million tons of carbon already this year, three times the amount for a regular fire season, according to the NASA Earth Observatory.
While the risk of death or injury from fire remains low in the U.S., it is worsening. Wildfires emit a mix of hazardous pollutants, including fine particulates. This pollution is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cognitive impairment, memory loss and even premature death. Disturbingly, wildfire smoke can travel hundreds of miles, as witnessed in the hazy skies of New York City from Quebec fires earlier this summer.
Ways to reduce wildfires
Despite this dismal picture, we can reduce the risk of wildfires. One easy method is through fire education and prevention programs. For instance, Indonesian communities participating in the Fire Free Village Program decreased the amount of burnt land by 90 percent during one of the worst fire seasons on record. The program informed communities about the risks associated with using fire to develop agricultural land, helped them implement alternatives, and provided infrastructure grants when “no burn” targets were met.
EcoForests Asset Management, a forestry investment management company, also engages local communities in fire safety and mitigation. It sponsors workshops and training programs, employs and trains fire response teams, and works to suppress garbage burning, which can trigger fires.
Another prevention method is eliminating the non-native plants that often fuel fires. For instance, European ranchers in Maui introduced African vegetation such as Guinea grass, molasses grass and buffelgrass for livestock forage in the 18th century. These grasses spread rapidly along roadsides and become highly flammable when they dry out. Both the recent fires and a blaze in 2018 were attributable, in part, to these non-native shrubs and grasses.
Maui County recommended replacing these invasive grasses and abandoned sugarcane fields with native vegetation to reduce wildfire risk in 2021. It also recommended introducing fire breaks, especially around power lines. Tragically, it seems little was done.
In addition, fires also clear the land and make it easier for non-native vegetation to invade or regrow. A coordinated set of restoration and plant management strategies may be required to break this cycle.
Fires and forests
Forests are a fertile ground for combatting fires. Decades of logging and fire suppression lead to woodlands with a high density of trees and a lot of fuel, which is a recipe for wildfires. Active management of forests — including thinning dead and dying trees, removing brush, pruning and controlled burning — can reduce fuel loads and the risk of fires in certain environments.
But that’s just the start. Technology also plays an important role. “You can use technology to detect a fire early, which is one great advancement,” said Michael Ackerman, CEO of Ecoforests Asset Management. “In most of the fires we're seeing across British Columbia, California, Greece and Maui, the fires expanded much quicker than they were detected. And then you don't have time for a rapid response.”
Drones, satellite technology, and the remote sensing method lidar can detect heat and moisture in the ground to determine high-risk areas, Ackerman said. Then, firebreaks can be set up by intentionally removing swathes of vegetation to slow or stop the spread of wildfires. The management company also proactively treats dry areas by adding fire-resistant species or planting vegetation to increase the forest’s canopy, and consequently, soil moisture. And it employs networks of wireless sensors that can detect combustion in a forest and send alerts.
In tropical forests, disturbances like deforestation can raise the temperature and dry out forests, increasing the risk of wildfires. To combat this, forestry companies can reforest gaps between forested areas which helps reduce the occurrence, intensity and speed of wildfires, Ackerman said.
Fighting climate change may help fight fires, too. “The world of carbon credits is allowing for more management of forests,” Ackerman said. “We reforest deforested areas, but you can also manage older forests. For example, JPMorgan Chase purchased $500 million of forests in the U.S. in October of last year, and they manage it to obtain carbon credits. By obtaining carbon credits, they have a duty to that forest area to protect and conserve it.”
There’s ample room for corporations to step up and play their part. Reducing and offsetting emissions, adopting sustainable practices, raising awareness, providing training programs and engaging with local communities are all steps companies can take.
Despite the growing risk of wildfires, if everyone chips in, we can pave the way to a safer and less fiery future.
Image credit: Marcus Kauffman/Unsplash
Ruscena Wiederholt is a science writer based in South Florida with a background in biology and ecology. She regularly writes pieces on climate change, sustainability and the environment. When not glued to her laptop, she likes traveling, dancing and doing anything outdoors.