Globally, no, but there are big regional variations—and climate change isn’t the necessarily the most important factor.
By Nathan Collins
Flames engulf trees along a highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Photo: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)
Wildfires continue to burn in Fort McMurray, Alberta, highlighting a growing trend toward more destructive—and more frequent—fires around the globe. One frequent point of conversation has been the role that climate change plays in creating that destruction. But that discussion could be moot: According to a new analysis, the total area burned worldwide per year has actually declined slightly over time, even as regional patterns, the fires themselves, and their impacts on humans have changed.
“The situation is complex,” says Swansea University geography professor Stefan Doerr, who co-authored the report with fellow Swansea professor Christina Santín. While fires are getting worse in some areas, notably the Western United States and Canada, “at [a] global scale it’s pretty evident that we have less fire than we did 100 years ago.”
So why do media reports—and, Doerr says, quite a few academics—suggest otherwise? Partly it’s a matter of how people describe wildfires, as well as some misconceptions about what determines fires’ impact. For example, climate change has led to longer wildfire seasons, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into more frequent or more severe wildfires, as some had reported. Whether there’s a major fire depends on more than just hot, dry conditions, Doerr says. It depends on both natural factors—like whether there’s fuel to burn—and human factors, such as policies that address when and how to fight fires. Likewise, the raw number of fires “is pretty meaningless,” since it says little about those fires’ actual impact, human or otherwise.
The raw number of fires “is pretty meaningless,” since it says little about those fires’ actual impact, human or otherwise.
A better number to look at is the total area burned per year—and when you look at that number, the patterns are pretty varied. In the United States and Canada, the area scorched by forest fires has increased roughly 5 percent per year for the past 15 years or so, but there’s been no accompanying increase in other types of wildfire. In Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, on the other hand, there’s been a comparable decline in the area burned by wildfires. Globally, it adds up to very little change at all.
In the long term, Doerr says, “I think what we will see certainly is a greater impact of fire,” the result of a convergence of factors. One issue is climate—all other things being equal, a hotter, drier world does tend to catch fire more easily—but it isn’t just climate or even fire suppression policies that matter, a fact that the Fort McMurray fire illustrates. As Alberta’s oil industry expanded, it attracted more and more people to the region—drawing them closer and closer to fire.