Does Climate Change Cause Wildfire Disasters?

Climate change worsens some fires, but we make choices creating fire disasters.

Posted Sep 12, 2020

Ilan Kelman
Brushfire in Bulgaria, near the Romanian border.
Source: Ilan Kelman

The horror of 2020’s wildfires is captured by hashtags: #AustraliaIsBurning and #CaliforniaBurning, among others. They barely tell the full tragedy of dozens killed, hundreds injured, thousands losing everything they own, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Then come the efforts to emphasize climate change, obscuring many more factors. Human-caused climate change is almost certainly worsening the fires. The fire disasters emerge from other choices including, but far beyond, climate change.

Higher air temperatures, longer periods with less precipitation, and higher evaporation rates lead to drier ecosystems. These ignite more easily, burning faster and with higher intensity. Human-caused climate change is a major influence and has also been impeding post-fire ecosystem recovery, because environmental conditions are different than what the plants are used to. Lightning patterns might be fluctuating, but working out climate change’s local impacts on lightning strikes is not straightforward.

Why worry? Fires are a typical and needed ecosystem process. From Australia to California, many species need low-intensity, periodic fires to survive and thrive. Indigenous peoples often managed fire regimes as part of maintaining trails, hunting, and keeping ecosystems healthy. Although, no society is perfect. We do not know how many fire disasters might have resulted through mistakes.

Today, we do. We identify human-caused conflagrations from carelessly managed campfires and cigarette butts through to arson, fireworks, and engine or electricity sparks. We see that the unnatural fires can harm nature when outside the realm which species require.

Now, we are changing the climate rapidly, which affects wildfire and bushfire characteristics. Nature cannot keep up with this rate of change. Animals are devastated, in Australia ranging from cute koalas to scary spiders, while ecosystems take much longer to regenerate.

All this, though, is about the fire and nature. Fire disasters hurt humans through deaths, injuries, disruption, and property loss. Why do we let this happen when we know that fires inevitably occur, even if becoming worse?

Long, bitter experiences with previous fires, and especially fire disasters killing hundreds, show the impossibility of suppressing or fighting all wildfires. Nor should we wish to, because an absence of fire forever would undermine ecosystems. Knowing all this, we nonetheless encroach into burnable wilderness, building in places which have often burned in the past and which must burn in the future.

Long before the first puff of smoke curls up from the forest, even without detailing current or projected future fire characteristics, we can act to help ourselves. Construction and planning regulations along with local groups offer extensive advice, support, and direction on stopping properties erupting in flames even as the surrounding area does.

Around the grounds, has fire-prone vegetation been replaced with more fire-resistant local species? None are fireproof, but the aim is for the fire to burn past the property without kindling it. Does landscaping account for fire advancing from any direction?

For structures, a long list of measures reduces flammability. Removing debris and litter, while closing holes and gaps in walls, stops embers from setting the structure alight. Woodpiles must be stored away from buildings on non-burnable surfaces while windows, doors, porches, fences, decks, and roofs must be fire-resistant. And many more actions.

The baseline piece of advice, though, is that no guarantees can be given. Many fire-resistant properties survive terrible infernos, while others are torched. Staying behind to defend a property adds to the chances of limiting damage, but is tough work and, if something goes wrong, might be lethal.

Preparing now to evacuate at any point in the future is essential. How much lead-time do you need to leave? How do you receive and verify fire or evacuation alerts, at any time of the day and wherever you are? What are options for evacuation routes? Where will you stay? What must you take with you (medication, hygiene products, documents such as passports, and files) and how long will it take to gather it?

What happens if you return home to find only charred remains? Is insurance affordable and available—and does reimbursement suffice for your losses?

Different approaches work for different people. If you have a private vehicle, could you live in it for a few days in case no alternative accommodation is available? Is there safe storage for extra gas for the vehicle? Are there spare chargers for mobile devices?

Is your data safe in the cloud, but still with offline backups since internet service can be patchy? What about a personal family plan in case the evacuation order comes without everyone being at home or contactable?

This preparation begins long before a crisis manifests and must be regularly revisited and practiced. It goes beyond the physical aspects of packing and moving. Are you psychologically ready to leave safely at a moment’s notice and to stay away for a while, not knowing how your home is? How secure is your livelihood from a sudden shutdown or a loss of premises?

And never forget further hazards, not just floods and mudslides which can sweep through a fire-scarred forest, but also hazards during the fire such as smoke and ash. Anyone with breathing difficulties needs to be far away, as air pollution can far exceed safe levels.

All this discussion assumes that people can answer the questions and have reasonable choices to make. Disasters tend to hit worst those who have the least. Homeless people, people without documents, people who are too poor to evacuate themselves, and people without support networks—they are often left far behind.

Meanwhile, people with disabilities whose needs might not be met elsewhere and people who might fear assault or discrimination in shelters understandably hesitate before leaving what they know and where they feel secure. None of these specific factors is created by climate change.

In fact, few aspects of wildfire disaster causes, and especially of averting wildfire disasters, are linked to climate change. They are about where we live, how we live, how we treat each other, what we should do before a fire, and what is safe to do during a fire. Wildfires and bushfires happen irrespective of human-caused climate change and, despite human-caused climate change, we can avoid the inevitably of the wildfire disaster.

Living in danger areas without adequate precautions means dying in fire. Living with fire is not easy, yet there is so much to do to reduce the prospects for a fire disaster.

References

Abatzoglou, J.T. and A.P. Williams. 2016. "Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 113, no. 42, pp. 11770-11775.

Kelman, I. 2015. "Climate Change and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction". International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 117-127.

Stevens‐Rumann, C.S., K.B. Kemp, P.E. Higuera, B.J. Harvey, M.T. Rother, D.C. Donato, P. Morgan, and T.T. Veblen. 2017. "Evidence for declining forest resilience to wildfires under climate change", vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 243-252.

Vaiciulyte, S. E.R. Galea, A. Veeraswamy, and L.M. Hulse. 2019. "Island vulnerability and resilience to wildfires: A case study of Corsica". International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 40, 101272.