Statement from the IAWF about climate change

The following is a statement from the International Association of Wildland Fire.

Climate Change Week at the United Nations
September 23 – 29, 2019

Climate change has already had significant consequences in the global wildfire reality, affecting citizens as well as the global wildland fire community. Many key issues of importance to the IAWF – including firefighter and civilian safety, fire management expenses, changing weather patterns, natural role of fire, fire regimes and ecosystem succession, as well as the wildland urban interface– all require recognition of the role of climate change.

Globally, we regularly see new reports about the “worst”, “largest”, “most expensive”, and “deadliest” fires and fire seasons. In 2019 and 2018, striking headlines read “Arctic on Fire” (Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Canada and Alaska), and the most expensive and largest fire years were recorded in 2018 in California and British Columbia, respectively, breaking the previous records set in 2017. The Camp Fire (CA, 2018), Attica Greece (2018), Black Saturday Australia (2009), and Portugal (2017) fires were all ranked amongst the top 11 deadliest fires in the last 100 years.

Under current climate change scenarios, fire regimes will change in terms of increases in burned area, severity, fire season length, frequency, and ignitions from lightning. Many parts of the world have already experienced an increase in record breaking temperatures and recurring droughts that have led to shifts in wildland fire. There is already evidence of climate-driven fire regime change in the Northern Hemisphere upper latitudes with fire risk increasing in non-traditional fire-prone countries. The consequences of human actions are here today, not in some distant future, and these are alarming and, most important, escalating.

The IAWF encourages all countries to emphasize increased international fire training and to implement easier cross-border sharing of professional fire management resources for suppression and prescribed fire opportunities. These will lessen the irrationally heavy burden any single country will have to carry to manage extreme fire seasons. Homes and communities must be better planned and built, so they are increasingly fire resistant and more adapted to natural disasters of all types. Health impacts of fires have long-term consequences, not only those that are immediate from the flames but also those from smoke and toxins, and these must be considered when planning and managing for future wildland fires. Wildfires and smoke do not recognize borders. As the global community tries to manage the new wildfire challenges, it is incumbent on everyone to prepare to support international neighbours in protecting lives and communities from fires and their impacts.

IAWF Vice-President Toddi Steelman recently said in Wildfire magazine (August 2019) that “Recent extreme weather events have catalysed public belief in, and concern about, climate change, and boosted public support for government actions to reduce its harmful impacts. This gives us a window of opportunity when conditions are right to make great strides on climate if we are strategic about it.” This window of opportunity requires people having the knowledge and political will to act now. Our global scientific community needs to publicly share knowledge learned about patterns of extreme wildland fire and weather, as well as how climate change is associated with these patterns. Our global fire management community needs to leverage its credibility to share its experiences about how climate change and its role in extreme weather is playing out in their day to day work environments. Connecting extreme weather events to real on-the-ground consequences can help more people understand how climate impacts are affecting us all.

Will efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions affect forest management?

Convection column Pioneer Fire
Convection column on the Pioneer Fire, August 30, 2016. Photo by Nick Guy of the University of Wyoming.

In case you came to our website yesterday and saw the green banner saying the site was closed for the day to recognize the global #ClimateStrike, we are back in service as you can see.

On Friday millions of people across the world, many of them young,  assembled to help bring awareness to what I and others are convinced is an emergency — a climate emergency. The more scientists learn about the changing climate the more serious the situation looks. A few years ago we were hearing that we had to reach net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050. That is a long way off and many of us will not be around then. But the young people marching today will be stuck with the results of what we do between now and then.

We still need to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, but we can’t wait until 2049 to begin making changes. Scientists are saying that to reach that goal, emissions would have to start dropping well before 2030 and be on a path to fall by about 45 percent by 2030. The longer we wait to begin making significant changes, the more difficult it will be to meet the 2050 goal.

Scientists estimate that wildland fires make up 5 to 10 percent of annual global CO2 emissions when taking into account renewed forest growth in the burned areas. Fires also release other greenhouse gasses such as methane. Experts estimate that the wildfires in California’s North Bay in October of 2017 emitted as much CO2 in one week as all of the state’s cars and trucks do in one year.

Up until now fire management in developed countries has virtually received a free pass when it comes to CO2, at least compared to what it could become in the next 10 to 15 years. There is world-wide pressure now to rapidly reduce the burning of fossil fuels. It is only a matter of time before we start hearing a chorus saying all vegetation fires are “bad”, including prescribed or “good fires”, using a term now being used by some U.S. Forest Service personnel.

Land managers should be thinking about how to deal with strong pressure to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from burning vegetation. Part of the answer is additional firefighters, engines, dozers, helicopters, and air tankers. The U.S. Forest Service budget for wildland fire has remained flat for the last several years, while the costs of suppression infrastructure has increased. In light of the climate emergency, allotting fewer real dollars to suppression is counter intuitive. Congress and the President need to take action on this budget issue.

Fuel treatment projects, including mechanical projects and prescribed fires, can reduce the size and resistance to control of wildfires. However, pressure to reduce CO2 emissions could make it more difficult to obtain approvals to conduct prescribed fires even though the results if done on a large enough scale can reduce emissions from wildfires over the long term. But it will be difficult to develop the formula for the right mix and priorities of mechanical treatments, prescribed fires, wildfire suppression, or doing nothing.

There are many irons in that fire, so to speak, such as dealing with smoke, protecting communities, restoring forests, conserving water resources, wildlife, endangered species, and of course the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses coming out of our forests as they burn one way or the other. It remains to be seen if all of those goals can be satisfied as we move closer to the climate emergency tipping point. Some of them may have to be de-emphasized. Land managers might be accused of being selfish if they insist on attempting to accomplish all of these traditional objectives that may exacerbate the climate for the entire planet. As well meaning as de-emphasis might me, unless skillfully implemented using the best science, the unintended consequences could actually increase CO2 emissions over time.

Political candidate creates four-minute ad emphasizing the Camp Fire and climate change

political ad wildfire fire
Screenshot from the video below.

Our policy on Wildfire Today about politics is that it “…will not be discussed, unless it directly affects wildland fire or firefighters”.

A presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, has created a four minute video ad in which most of those minutes are spent on the topic of the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed over 14,000 homes in Northern California in November, 2018. The ad also discusses climate change.

Senator Sanders may be using wildfire as a means to talk about climate change, but it is unusual for a political candidate to put this amount of effort into the subject of wildland fire.

Wildfire Today is not going to endorse politicians. If other candidates put forth a similar amount of effort on the subject of wildland fire, we will cover those as well.

Researchers evaluate connection between California wildfires and human-caused climate change

A group of seven scientists published a paper last month that looks at the connection between California wildfires and human-caused climate change, titled Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California. One of their main conclusions was that climate warming dries the atmosphere which in turn dries fuels, promoting forest fires in the summer.

Here is the abstract:

“Recent fire seasons have fueled intense speculation regarding the effect of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire in western North America and especially in California. During 1972–2018, California experienced a fivefold increase in annual burned area, mainly due to more than an eightfold increase in summer forest‐fire extent. Increased summer forest‐fire area very likely occurred due to increased atmospheric aridity caused by warming. Since the early 1970s, warm‐season days warmed by approximately 1.4 °C as part of a centennial warming trend, significantly increasing the atmospheric vapor pressure deficit (VPD). These trends are consistent with anthropogenic trends simulated by climate models. The response of summer forest‐fire area to VPD is exponential, meaning that warming has grown increasingly impactful.

“Robust interannual relationships between VPD and summer forest‐fire area strongly suggest that nearly all of the increase in summer forest‐fire area during 1972–2018 was driven by increased VPD. Climate change effects on summer wildfire were less evident in nonforested lands. In fall, wind events and delayed onset of winter precipitation are the dominant promoters of wildfire. While these variables did not change much over the past century, background warming and consequent fuel drying is increasingly enhancing the potential for large fall wildfires. Among the many processes important to California’s diverse fire regimes, warming‐driven fuel drying is the clearest link between anthropogenic climate change and increased California wildfire activity to date.”

An illustration from the paper:

Climate change California wildfires
Seasonal and annual burned areas in California for 1972–2018. (a) Total burned area in the four regions of focus: (b) North Coast, (c) Sierra Nevada, (d) Central Coast, and (e) South Coast. Annual burned area is decomposed into that which occurred in January–April (green), May–September (red), and October–December (orange). Significant (p < 0.05) trends are shown as bold black curves.

Below is an excerpt from the paper:

“In this study we evaluated the various possible links between anthropogenic climate change and observed changes in California wildfire activity across seasons, regions, and land cover types since the early 1970s. The clearest link between California wildfire and anthropogenic climate change thus far has been via warming‐driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire, particularly in the North Coast and Sierra Nevada regions. Warming has been far less influential on summer wildfire in nonforest areas. In fall, the drivers of wildfire are particularly complex, but warming does appear to enhance the probability of large fall wildfires such as those in 2017 and 2018, and this effect is likely to grow in the coming decades.

“Importantly, the effects of anthropogenic warming on California wildfire thus far have arisen from what may someday be viewed as a relatively small amount of warming. According to climate models, anthropogenic warming since the late 1800s has increased the atmospheric vapor‐pressure deficit by approximately 10%, and this increase is projected to double by the 2060s. Given the exponential response of California burned area to aridity, the influence of anthropogenic warming on wildfire activity over the next few decades will likely be larger than the observed influence thus far where fuel abundance is not limiting.”

Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California.
A. Park Williams John T. Abatzoglou Alexander Gershunov Janin Guzman‐Morales Daniel A. Bishop Jennifer K. Balch Dennis P. Lettenmaier
First published: 15 July 2019

Former fire chiefs warn Australians about increasing climate threat

Pilliga Fire New South Wales
Pilliga Fire 60km southwest of Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia, January 2018.

An article in The Guardian says 20 former fire chiefs in Australia are warning that the country and the emergency services are not prepared for the escalating threat from bushfires caused by climate change.

Below is an excerpt:

In a statement issued before a federal election date is announced, 23 former emergency services leaders and senior personnel have called on both major parties to recognise the need for “national firefighting assets”, including large aircraft, to deal with the scale of the threat.

The document calls on the next prime minister to meet former emergency service leaders “who will outline, unconstrained by their former employers, how climate change risks are rapidly escalating”.

The group also wants the next government to commit to an inquiry into whether Australia’s emergency services are adequately resourced to deal with increased risks from natural disasters caused by climate change.

Last year, in Australia alone, the NSW fire season began in early August, a heatwave led to fires in rainforest areas of Queensland in early December, and forest in Tasmania’s world heritage area caught fire in January, Australia’s hottest month on record.

Fires Queensland satellite photo
Satellite photo of smoke from the fires in Queensland, Australia, November 26, 2018.

Climate change brings less rain with more dry lightning and wildfires to Tasmania

wildfires in Tasmania satellite photo
Satellite photo of smoke from wildfires in Tasmania, January 21, 2019. The red dots represent heat detected by the satellite. NASA & Wildfire Today.

Climate change has already brought alarming change to Tasmania, the huge island south of the Australian mainland. Until recently it was assumed that the climate differences would not be massive since it was thought by some that the ocean surrounding the island would not be heating as quickly as it was in other areas.

Now the southwest area of the state, the heart of its world heritage area, is being described as dying — the rainforest and heathlands are beginning to disappear. The nearby seas, it turns out, are warming at two to three times the global rate.

Richard Flanagan writes about this issue in an opinion article at The Guardian. Below is an excerpt:

…Then there was the startlingly new phenomenon of widespread dry lightning storms. Almost unknown in Tasmania until this century they had increased exponentially since 2000, leading to a greatly increased rate of fire in a rapidly drying south-west. Compounding all this, winds were also growing in duration, further drying the environment and fuelling the fires’ spread and ferocity.

Such a future would see these fires destroy Tasmania’s globally unique rainforests and mesmerizing alpine heathlands. Unlike mainland eucalyptus forest these ecosystems do not regenerate after fire: they would vanish forever. Tasmania’s world heritage area was our Great Barrier Reef, and, like the Great Barrier Reef, it seemed doomed by climate change.

Later [Prof Peter] Davies [an eminent water scientist] took me on a research trip into a remote part of the south-west to show me the deeply upsetting sight of an area that was once peatland and forest and was now, after repeated burning, wet gravel. The news was hard to comprehend – the enemies of Tasmania’s wild lands had always had local addresses: the Hydro Electricity Commission, Gunns, various tourism ventures. They could be named and they could be fought, and, in some cases, beaten.

Six weeks ago, the future that Davies and others had been predicting arrived in Tasmania. Lightning strikes ignited what would become known as the Gell River fire in the island’s south-west. In later weeks more lightning strikes led to more fires, every major one of which is still burning.