Prepare for worse wildfires, warns UNEP report

Tsavo was in the headlines in 2020 following fire outbreaks that destroyed more than 800 square kilometres.

In Summary
  • Climate change and land use change could lead to a sharp rise of fires by up to 50 per cent by the next century.
  • And governments are not prepared.
LOST BIODIVERSITY: Fire in the Tsavo National Park. Image: GILBERT KOECH
LOST BIODIVERSITY: Fire in the Tsavo National Park. Image: GILBERT KOECH

Wildfires are set to become more intense and frequent, ravaging communities and ecosystems in their path, a new report says.

Climate change and land use change could lead to a sharp rise of fires by up to 50 per cent by the next century. And governments are not prepared.

This is according to the report, 'Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires'.

Regions previously unaffected by wildfires will be the worst hit. 

The report by the UN Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal was released last Wednesday. It was released before the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) in Nairobi, between Monday and Wednesday.

Extreme fires will go up by 14 per cent by 2030, 30 per cent by the end of 2050 and 50 per cent by the end of the century.

In 2020, wildfires consumed large chunks of the Tsavo conservation area and destroyed more than 800 square kilometres.

Ecologists said the ravaging fires caused more harm than good to the biodiversity.

Early this month, huge fires broke out in the scenic and vulnerable moorlands of northern Aberdares.

They destroyed 1,729.735 acres of moorlands vegetation within the Aberdare National Park and adjacent forest reserve.

At least five distinct fires were initially observed, strongly suggesting criminal activity as the source.

Dry conditions and powerful winds were major contributors to the fire’s rapid spread, which was further compounded by the multiple points started by suspected arsonists.

The new report calls for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting their investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.

The publication calls on governments to adopt a new ‘Fire Ready Formula’, with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for a response.

Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of the related expenditures, while planning receives less than one per cent.

To prevent fires, authors call for a combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge and for stronger regional and international cooperation.

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported”, Unep executive director Inger Andersen said.

“We have to minimise the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change”.

The report says wildfires disproportionately affect the poorest nations.

They impede progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals and deepen social inequalities as people’s health is directly affected by inhaling wildfire smoke, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts and increased health effects for the most vulnerable.

The report says wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating.

Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons.

At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.

Wildlife and its natural habitats are rarely spared from wildfirespushing some animal and plant species closer to extinction.

The report says the restoration of ecosystems is an important avenue to mitigate the risk of wildfires before they occur and to build back better in their aftermath.

The report concludes with a call for stronger international standards for the safety and health of firefighters and for minimising the risks that they face before, during and after operations.

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star