In some ecosystems, such as high-latitude forests, wildfires are a natural occurrence. These help maintain healthy ecosystems by depositing nutrients into the soil and boosting seed dispersal. However, in recent years, fire seasons have become more extreme and widespread. This includes forest ecosystems where fires are uncommon, such as tropical rainforests. Consequently, this has led to devastating results for communities, flora, fauna and other organisms that live in and around these areas.

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What causes forest fires?

Natural causes

Worldwide, up to 25% of wildfires are induced by natural factors, such as lightning or volcanic activity. One of the key causes for the increase in forest fires around the world has been climate change. This is because fire-prone conditions are exacerbated by the hotter and drier weather brought about by climate change. This leads to phenomena like high temperatures, strong winds and droughts, contributing to the ignition or spread of fires.

Related: How can the world combat the climate crisis?

Human-related causes

Humans are responsible for 75% of the world’s wildfires. However, in the U.S. alone, 84% of wildfires are caused by humans or human-related activities. Data shows that in the Northern Hemisphere, most fires are a result of negligence. This includes the burning of rubbish or debris and industrial accidents. These fires are consequently made worse by the hot, dry summer seasons induced by climate change, resulting in them spreading quickly and uncontrollably.

In more tropical or subtropical regions, forest fires are often caused by uncontrolled fires that are intended for land-use change. This includes land conversion for agriculture to meet industry demands. Additionally, human-induced factors such as diseased vegetation and degraded land as a result of logging, create areas susceptible to wildfires. As these factors continue to become more prevalent across ecosystems, they will continue to create conditions that will become more favorable for stronger and more frequent forest fires. In turn, they could have severe impacts on these biodiversity hotspots.

What are the effects of forest fires?

Wildfires cause several catastrophic effects on communities, economies and ecosystems, all of which are intermingled. Additionally, though they are often induced by climate change factors, forest fires form part of a vicious cycle that contributes to climate change.

Socio-economic effects

Unfortunately, one of the key threats of forest fires is how they negatively impact the health and well-being of communities in the affected regions. Each year, roughly 340,000 premature deaths occur as a result of respiratory and cardiovascular issues caused by wildfire smoke. In fact, smoke and haze can travel great distances, resulting in poor health even for those in areas that are not directly impacted by the fires. Besides health, wildfires impact all areas of life. For example, in Indonesia, over five million students were affected by the fire season, as schools were forced to close down for the safety of the local communities.

Wildfires can also have severe economic impacts. They cause billions of dollars of economic damage through the destruction of infrastructure, including water and food supplies, property, telecommunications and power facilities. Economies are also negatively affected by the large-scale evacuations that need to take place for the safety of locals in the region.

Environmental effects

As one can imagine, forest fires are an increasingly concerning threat to the environment. Unlike humans who are typically able to escape from these dangerous situations, wildfires can wipe out endemic species of plants, animals and other organisms in a given area. This causes severe threats to biodiversity and oftentimes, irreparable damage to these ecosystems. Depending on the severity and spread of the fires, large populations of wildlife can be impacted. For example, in the 2019 to 2020 Australian wildfires, three billion animals were estimated to have been displaced or killed.

Besides threats to biodiversity and local ecosystems, wildfires also have severe impacts on the world at large. Carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere by forest fires exacerbates global warming, thus creating a vicious cycle that is affected by climate change, but also contributes to it. Consequently, this amplifies hot, dry seasons which result in more extreme fires, which further induce greater carbon emissions.

Currently, the CO2 emitted by global forest fires annually is equivalent to carbon emissions produced by the European Union each year. The consequences this could have on climate change are severe and are only increasing. In fact, due to the increase in deforestation, wildfires and rising temperatures, forests could go from being one of the world’s largest carbon sinks to becoming one of the largest carbon sources, as billions of tons of sequestered carbon could be released into the atmosphere.

How can we prevent forest fires?

In the U.S. alone, 7.5 million acres of land are lost to wildfires each year, with human-related causes being the primary culprit. While the weather can influence forest fires and their occurrences, human activity exacerbates the situation even more. Currently, the most common causes of human-induced forest fires are the burning of debris, overheated or sparking equipment/machinery and campfires. Fire prevention and control are only possible through the implementation of appropriate forest management plans and responsible behavior in forest ecosystems.

There are several ways for people to take precautions to prevent the start of accidental forest fires. The main component within each of these precautionary measures is being mindful of weather conditions and mitigating possible sources of ignition. By taking into account the methods of preventing wildfires, we can prevent the immense socio-economic and environmental repercussions that these phenomena have on local ecosystems.

Practicing responsible agriculture and garbage disposal

Agricultural activities that involve logging often use the burning of dried vegetation or debris to deposit nutrients into the soil. Burning rubbish is another related activity. While this is not the healthiest form of garbage disposal, it is a tactic that many use, particularly in more remote areas. Besides their immense threats to diversity, these activities are often the cause of wildfires. When ashes are not properly extinguished or weather conditions are poor, fires grow and spread to nearby ecosystems. These are aggravated by disposed plastics or petrol, as they can produce toxic fumes or explosions.

Preventing machinery-related and vehicular hazards

Spark-producing tools, hot equipment and over-heated engines are all key sources of wildfire ignition. Therefore, it is recommended to avoid using spark-producing tools as they can cause dry vegetation to catch fire. Additionally, refueling heated engines is dangerous and illegal, as it leads to combustion. In general, it is prudent to have fire-extinguishing equipment on hand to prevent the growth of small flares that could be caused by machines or vehicles.

Maintaining a safe campsite

While partaking in recreational activities, it is key to ensure that you maintain a safe environment. One such example includes making sure that campfires are completely extinguished. Another good practice is the safe disposal of hot items and cigarettes. This prevents sparks from growing into larger, uncontrollable flares. Finally, if fireworks are being lit, it is crucial to take wildfire prevention measures. Firstly, fireworks should not be lit in or near forests. Additionally, it helps to water the grass near the fireworks area and not start fireworks when it is windy, in order to prevent unexpected flares.

Via Global Forest Watch, WWF and EOS Data Analytics

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