Firefighting strategies need an extreme overhaul, warns UN

Nations must spend more money learning to live with wildfires than spending money fighting them, according to a new United Nations report. The report predicts a dramatic increase in ‘extreme’ fires and warns there needs to be a ‘radical’ change in how governments deal with them.

Globally, extreme wildfires are expected to increase by up to 14% this decade and 50% by the end of the century. Conventional firefighting, which tackles fires as they occur, will not be enough to deal with new threats, says the report released today by the United Nations Environment Programme. environment and the Norwegian non-profit organization GRID-Arendal.

To cope, the report says, two-thirds of public spending on wildfires should be spent on preparing for and adapting to large fires. The rest can be used to fight fires at the time. This is a significant shift from today’s priorities. The majority of funding is currently dedicated to wildfire response, with less than 1% going to planning.

“Current government responses to wildfires often put money in the wrong place,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said in a press release. “Emergency service workers and firefighters on the front lines who are risking their lives to fight wildfires must be supported.”

Supporting these firefighters, the report says, means adopting more effective strategies to tame the blazes. Much of the modern Western world has emphasized putting out all fires, even those that were a natural part of the ecosystem. Ironically, fire suppression can actually lead to more intense fires because it allows dry tinder to build up on forest floors.

In contrast, some indigenous peoples like the Karuk tribe in California traditionally started small, controlled fires that made larger spontaneous wildfires more manageable. The UN report recommends building on this indigenous knowledge and focusing on controlled burns and other ways to clean up away from dead branches and vegetation that can fuel forest fires. It could also include thinning forests, grazing livestock in strategic locations, and encouraging the growth of less flammable plants to create fuel cuts. This is an argument that has gained momentum lately. The Joe Biden administration released a 10-year wildfire plan in January that emphasizes better forest management, including controlled burns.

The new report also notes that populations have increased in and around fire-prone areas, which can make wildfires even more disastrous. And with climate change preparing more landscapes for burning – even in unexpected places like the Arctic – these communities need to be better prepared, the report says. This includes doing homes and infrastructure are more fireproof, issue air quality alerts for smoke, plan evacuation routes, and allocate more money to recovery efforts. Preserving some open spaces as buffers between people and wildfires is also essential. The report also suggests establishing international standards to better protect the health and safety of firefighters.

Limiting climate change by meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement will also make it easier for countries to avoid more catastrophic fires, according to the report’s authors. The climate crisis has made fire seasons longer and more intense as regions become hotter and drier. To make matters worse, wildfires also contribute to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide when trees and vegetation burn.

“Eliminating the risk of forest fires is not possible,” the report said. “But a lot can be done to manage and reduce risk.”


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