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Wildfires Mark the New Reality of Climate Change in 2017

As fire conditions intensify around the globe, scientists are helping countries prepare for a fiery new normal.
A strong wind blows embers during the Thomas Fire on December 16th, 2017, in Montecito, California.

A strong wind blows embers during the Thomas Fire on December 16th, 2017, in Montecito, California.

Sometimes the effects of climate change seem to creep up, as when sea levels rise an inch every few years, or when temperatures break records by a tenth of a degree. But when your backyard is on fire, you feel global warming breathing down your neck.

In the last three years, as global temperatures spiked to new records, it sometimes felt like the whole world was ablaze, as a series of "worst-ever" fires damaged and destroyed ecosystems and human communities on nearly every continent, under new climate conditions that will be the norm by 2050.

Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, fire conditions will become even more persistent in areas already at risk, and will spread to new regions as warming drives vegetation patterns and land-use changes. Without rethinking our relationship with nature, landscapes, and wildfire, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, with the same catastrophic results.

The past few years have shown how bad things can get, fire experts say. In the super-heated El Niño years of 2015 and 2016, there were late-summer tundra fires in Greenland, peat fires in Indonesia, and hardwood forests in the southeast United States that burned on an unprecedented scale.

By early 2017, El Niño had faded, but parts of the Southern Hemisphere were scorched by record heat and fires, including Australia, where fire experts made statements similar to the bulletins coming out of Southern California right now: "This is the worst day we have seen in the history of New South Wales when it comes to fire danger ratings and fire conditions," Shane Fitzsimmons, the state's rural fire chief, told the BBC in February, with almost 100 bushfires burning.

In Valparaiso, Chile, 100 houses were destroyed by fires racing through a coastal setting that has a climate and topography similar to those of the Los Angeles Basin, where the fire season culminated this month with flames overpowering civilization right on the edge of one of the biggest, wealthiest, and most populated urban areas in the world.

"2017 is a year that we clearly expected, the proof of what our colleagues have predicted for years: that especially on the U.S. West Coast, the fire season will gradually evolve to be year-round," says Johann Goldammer, director of the Global Fire Monitoring Center in Freiburg, Germany, an organization that specializes in helping developing countries identify resources and find information about fire resilience.

As the global climate warms, at-risk communities need to improve governance of wildfire issues, including landscape management, while also strengthening regional and international measures for cooperation, Goldammer tells Pacific Standard.

In southern Europe, for example, climate change and migration have led to the abandonment of some agricultural areas. No longer tended and watered, those orchards and fields are now fuel for fires, so communities have to account for such changes in land use when planning for future fire risks.

Scientists have been warning for 20 years that climate change would increase the risk of damaging fires, and that many of these fires can't be stopped. Communities in less developed countries are most at risk right now. They need more resources to manage landscapes to prevent fires, and they need better weather and climate forecasting services—and the ability to put people and tools on the ground.

At times, the growing risk already seems to be outpacing society's capacity to adapt. In 2016, the GFMC sent a team of experts to South America to warn of fire risks and help communities prepare. Six months later, before any measures were taken, deadly fires burned across parts of Chile and Argentina following a record heat wave.

Alexander Held, a resilience expert at the European Forest Institute, says that hubris is the biggest problem in the face of a growing fire threat. "It's all coming down to failed land management and that our societies have forgotten how to live with fire," Held tells Pacific Standard via email.

Held advocates shifting resources from fire suppression to fire prevention, including managed fires, which are scientifically proven to be the best way to minimize catastrophic effects on communities and natural resources.

"Look at Western Australia. They had a large-scale prescribed burning program, and for decades there was nothing like a disaster fire. Only when they reduced the area that was supposed to be burned by prescription did disaster fires start to happen," he says. “The biggest challenge is how to influence policymakers and political decision making," Held says.


Significant 2017 Fires

  • In January, wildfires in Peru destroyed an entire town and killed 11 people. NASA satellite images show scenes similar to those in Southern California right now, with hot, dry desert winds blowing plumes of smoke out to sea. In adjacent Argentina, wildfires burned across 2.47 million acres in late 2016 and early 2017, again after record-hot temperatures baked the pampas, the country's high, dry grasslands.
  • In February, extreme fire conditions developed in the region around Sydney, Australia, with more than 100 fires.
  • In April and May, a wildfire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the Florida-Georgia border burned across 152,000 acres, and record-setting heat in Florida every month from January through April factored into a fierce wildfire season down the peninsula, with more than 2,000 fires total in the first half of the year.*
  • In June, the deadliest fires in Portugal's long history started after a record spring heat wave, killing 65 people and burning across more than 110,000 acres in a country about the size of Indiana.
  • In July, a record-setting heat wave, dubbed "Lucifer," built across southern Europe, leading to hundreds of fires in Italy, France, and the Balkans. The same month also brought massive fires to western Canada that set records for the largest total area burned in a single season in British Columbia.
  • In October, fires raged across 245,000 acres in Northern California, killing 44 people, burning nearly 9,000 structures, and causing more than $9 billion of insured property losses. At the same time, another deadly round of wildfires flared up in Portugal, driven partly by winds from Hurricane Ophelia, which followed an unusual path through the eastern Atlantic.
  • In December, the Thomas Fire began in Southern California, where it continues its progress today.

*Update—December 20th, 2017: This story has been updated to reflect the proper size of this past spring's fire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.