A Science Guide to Wildfire for Journalists

Climate Change Impacts and Solutions

Home Projects Journalist's Guide to Wildfire: Climate Change Impacts and Solutions

Wildfires in Europe and all across the world are increasingly becoming a threat not only to people but also to the natural environment and all the benefits it offers to us. We have observed unprecedented volume of wildfires in not only the countries that face fire threats every year, but also in the countries like Sweden where these types of wildfires usually do not occur in such an extent.

What do we know about these wildfires? Do we have a solution to counter the challenge?

Impacts of Climate Change

There are very clear and obvious impacts of climate change on fire risk and damages induced by forest fire. Dr. Marcus Lindner, Principal Scientist Natural Science of the European Forest Institute outlines the interrelation between the wildfires and climate change:

  • The forest fire weather index is widely used to estimate risk of wildfire. Besides vegetation characteristics, several climatic variables such as air humidity, temperature, precipitation and wind speed are used to calculate the index. All of these variables are affected by climate change and thus the average fire risk increases.
  • Climate change induces longer and more drastic droughts, which lead to a reduced moisture content of litter and other fine fuels and induces plant and tree mortality, making the biomass much more flammable.
  • Climate change can induce more lightnings, thus increasing ignition sources (c.f. Hurricane Ophelia)
  • Climate change intensifies heat waves with extreme temperatures and stronger winds which results in much more rapid spread of fires.
  • More regions are getting vulnerable to forest fires and the fire season expands dramatically - in the past fire seasons were rather short, now the forest fire risk can occur over a much longer period
  • In a nutshell, the extent of regions at risk increases, the fire season expands, and the intensity of fires gets much more severe: there would hardly be mega-fires without climate change.

The European Commission's Joint Research Centre published a technical report entitled 'Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2017' which states:

"[A] clear trend towards longer fire seasons compared to previous years, with fires now occurring well beyond the dry and hot summer months (July- September). In 2017, the most critical months were June and October, when deadly fires swept through Portugal and Northern Spain. (...) The Mediterranean region remains the most affected area. However, unusually dry summers in central and northern Europe have recently led to large fires in countries such as Sweden, Germany and Poland, which have historically seen very few." [Source: JRC Technical Report

 

Climate change alone does not necessarily result in disaster fires, but changes in various areas of society along with environmental change can manifest in the bigger, longer and more uncontrollable fires we witness today.
Alex Held
Senior Expert, EFI Resilience Programme

Alex Held, our fire expert from the EFI's Resilience Research Programme also explains today’s wildfires in detail:

We have seen a number of most disastrous fires all across the world. How do they relate to climate change?

Disastrous wildfires have happened in history long before science had any idea of climate change. But these disaster fires were not all too common; they were rather exceptions. With the effects of global and climate change today, we see that the frequency and intensity of unwanted fires is rising. We need to understand that climate change is not a scenario any more as the extreme weather events have already become a reality. Fire seasons are longer, drier, hotter and also visible in places where there used to be no expansive fires.

I prefer to talk about global change instead of climate change, like how John Reilly from MIT Joint Program explained during one of the Lookout360 Accelerator’s mentorship sessions. As our societies transform, our attitudes and behaviour change too-  land use has changed due to economic and societal interests and with the weather we get a more fire-prone environment. For me, it is an important point to explain that climate change alone does not necessarily result in disaster fires, but changes in various areas of society along with environmental change can manifest in the bigger, longer and more uncontrollable fires we witness today.

Solutions

Wildfires are nothing new, but where and how these fires happen is becoming a huge problem in today’s society. So, what can we do to counter these wildfires?

In a nutshell, these wildfires can be dealt with better if the land is managed in a way to prevent and mitigate these fires. Fires are managed by suppressing them; approximately 90% of today’s wildfire budgets goes to the 'suppression' measures like water bombing aircrafts.  But if we move away from this short term approach and manage the forests better, many of these wildfires can be prevented and their effects mitigated. In this way, the response becomes more efficient, safer and cheaper.

Among recent articles where our experts were interviewed, the following examples went beyond the cause and impacts of fires, to focus on solutions:

Alex shares his insights about the solution we need to counter the issue:

What is the solution to counter today’s high volume of forest fires. What needs to happen?

We need a change of paradigm in managing fires. Fire suppression is now tried and tested over decades in the US, Canada, Africa, Australia and Europe, but that does not work anymore as every other factor including our climate is changing. The new focus must address the other phases of crisis management that rather focus on prevention and mitigation. We need a new way to manage crisis through better land and forest management to ensure to retain resilient landscapes. The United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reductions also signifies the importance of long-term approach to disasters, putting a focus on prevention and mitigation. It is a high time that we saw governments investing in sound land management practices that include adequate fire management. Not just more aircrafts.

Media’s Role

So, what can media do to address the issues around the wildfires we are facing today?

Alex states, “media, understandably, cover stories they can sell, that are timely and portrait the devastation and human tragedies. But we rarely see coverage on how we can ‘solve’ these issues. As someone working in a forest science organisation, I always hoped to see more solution stories about how to better manage the land and forests so that the fires could be contained safely.”

Alex Held has been featured in various international media’s stories about wildfires in Sweden and Greece this year. If you are a journalist who would like to understand the fires in Europe, you can contact Alex at alexander.held[AT]efi.int

If you would like to get scientific insights on climate change impacts on forests, you can contact Marcus at marcus.lindner[AT]efi.int

Dr. Marcus Lindner

Principle Scientist, Resilience Programme, European Forest Institute

Dr. Marcus Lindner holds a degree in forest sciences from University of Freiburg and a PhD in Geoecology from University of Potsdam in Germany. He has 25 years of experience in research on climate change impacts, adaptation and mitigation strategies in forest management, forest sector sustainability, forest resource assessments and ecosystem service provisioning from European forests. For his researches, see this link.

Alexander Held

Senior Expert, EFI Resilience Programme

Alexander Held holds MSc in Forest Science from Freiburg University, Germany. He started as a fire ecologist at the Fire Ecology working group of the Max-Planck Society, got a number of operational qualifications in the US and South Africa. He moved from fire ecology to fire management and worked with the Global Fire Monitoring Center GFMC in Europe and southern Africa. Later, Alex worked with the South African Working on Fire Program, from its early beginnings till 2012, when he joined the European Forest Institute EFI.

At the EFI, Alex works on the establishment of the European Forest Risk Facility, where the exchange of expertise and knowledge, mutual assistance and cooperation in Europe is the tool to create more resilient landscapes. His expertise is in risk fire, silviculture and deer management.