Climate change fuels escalating wildfire risk, warns OECD report
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"Climate change is exacerbating extreme wildfire risk," says a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Taming Wildfires in the Context of Climate Change.
"Along with unsustainable land-use practices and environmental degradation, climate change is a key factor driving wildfire risk as it leads to higher temperatures, a dryer landscape, and greater variation in wind, rainfall, and lightning patterns."
The report, published May 17, provides a global assessment and outlook on wildfire risk in the context of climate change and underlines the need to scale up climate change adaptation efforts to limit future wildfire costs. The analysis draws on case studies in Australia, Costa Rica, Greece, Portugal, and the United States.
OECD Environment Directorate Director Jo Tyndall writes in her foreword: "As little as a decade ago, there was no way to confirm a clear link between the occurrence of extreme wildfires and climate change, but this has rapidly changed. We now know that climate change alters fire weather and fuel conditions, resulting in a growing number of extreme wildfires."
According to the document, in the last 30 years, climate change is estimated to have doubled the total forest area burned in the western United States compared to a counterfactual without climate change. The extreme fire weather that facilitated the 2019-20 wildfires in Australia was estimated to be at least 30 per cent more likely because of climate change.
"Given that further warming is already locked in, this trend will not be reversed anytime soon," Tyndall adds.
Emissions from extreme wildfires also fuel climate change, which in turn further increases the frequency, size, and severity of wildfire events, creating a feedback loop between climate change and extreme wildfires.
The frequency and severity of extreme wildfires, as well as the duration of the fire season, are increasing in many parts of the world, damaging lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems, and underscoring the need to shift from fire suppression to preventative measures.
In Australia, the average wildfire frequency has doubled since 1980. Between 1985 and 2017, the severity of wildfires in the western US forests, or the extent to which a fire affects an ecosystem, increased eightfold. The duration of the fire season has increased by 27 per cent globally since 1979.
The report calls for a fundamental shift in wildfire management towards enhanced wildfire prevention. It further gives recommendations that aim to inform countries’ policy progress towards building climate resilience to extreme wildfires.
"Affected countries have scaled up their emergency preparedness and response capacity. In the past 10-20 years, affected countries have increased resources to suppress wildfires up to fourfold," says the report.
However, increasingly extreme wildfires have shown the limits of suppression in containing damage. Some extreme wildfires can take months to suppress, straining firefighting resources and limiting their effectiveness to contain wildfire effects. The outbreak of several simultaneous fires increases the risk of fatalities. This underlines the importance of countries strengthening their wildfire risk reduction measures. Extreme wildfires cause significant social, environmental, and economic disruptions. "They are affecting more and more local communities and regional economies and threatening vulnerable ecosystems across the globe," writes Tyndall.
Their social costs go far beyond the lives lost and include widespread health consequences. For example, at the global level, wildfire-induced air pollution is associated with 340,000 premature deaths annually.
Extreme wildfires can also cause long-lasting and potentially irreversible ecosystem damage. Following the 2017 wildfires in Chile, nearly 40 per cent of critically endangered habitats were significantly damaged, while the area where vegetation did not grow back after wildfires nearly doubled between 2000 and 2011 in some areas of the United States.
The economic effects of extreme wildfires are also mounting at unprecedented levels. The 2018 Camp Fire became the deadliest in California’s history and caused economic costs amounting to USD 19 billion, without taking into account the indirect effects. The 2019-20 wildfires in Australia caused USD 23 billion in direct costs. It wreaked havoc in Australia, with environmental damages that may well last for decades.
"The consequences of wildfires also go beyond affected countries’ borders. Extreme wildfires in the Amazon region, such as those experienced in 2016, may trigger critical tipping points. These could result in abrupt shifts in vegetation cover, which in turn affect global carbon cycles," says Tyndall.
The OECD report provides recommendations for adapting to a changing climate in the management of wildfires. The report suggests strengthening ecosystem protection and adaptive management for wildfire prevention, scaling up fuel management efforts to reduce fuel accumulation and continuity, and strengthening land-use planning and building regulations for wildfire prevention.
To strengthen ecosystem protection and adaptive management for wildfire prevention, the report recommends protecting wildland from degradation through strict regulations, monitoring, and enforcement. It also suggests restoring degraded ecosystems to reduce their proneness to wildfire risk and manage forests to adapt their structure and composition to changing wildfire risk in line with local needs and conditions.
The report recommends scaling up fuel management efforts to reduce fuel accumulation and continuity by mandating the use and maintenance of buffer zones to protect assets in wildlife-urban interface (WUI) areas, developing fuel break systems and landscape mosaic areas to reduce landscape flammability, and enabling the active use of fire for fuel management, agricultural, and other purposes under safe conditions with monitoring systems in place.
To strengthen land-use planning and building regulations for wildfire prevention, the report suggests regulating development in fire-prone areas via zoning regulations, restricting development in high-risk areas, developing building codes and standards that mandate fireproof building design for new and existing buildings, regulating infrastructure planning, design, and operations to reduce wildfire risk, and ensuring compliance with land-use planning and building regulations via awareness raising, economic incentives, and stricter monitoring and enforcement.
Finally, the report suggests harnessing knowledge for better wildfire management and improving wildfire risk assessments by updating information on wildfire hazard, exposure, and vulnerability regularly, integrating climate models into wildfire hazard assessments, developing wildfire projections that integrate information on future climate and socio-economic changes under different scenarios, and integrating policy-relevant knowledge on wildfires, including lessons learned from extreme fires, into all relevant policies and practices.
Working with over 100 countries, the OECD is a global policy forum that promotes policies to preserve individual liberty and improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. The full report can be found here.