Nations should spend more money learning to live with wildfires rather than burning money to fight them, says a new United Nations report. The report predicts a dramatic increase in “extreme” fires and warns that there must be a “radical” shift in how governments handle them.
Globally, extreme wildfires are expected to increase to 14 percent this decade and to 50 percent by the end of the century. Conventional firefighting, which tackles fires as they arise, will not be enough to deal with the new threats, says the report published today by the United Nations Environment Program and the Norwegian environmental organization GRID-Arendal.
To cope, the report says, two-thirds of government spending on wildfires should go on preparing for and adapting to major fires. The rest can go to extinguishing fires at this time. It is a major shift from today’s priorities. Most of the funding currently goes toward responding to wildfires, with less than 1 percent being funneled into planning.
“The current government responses to wildfires are often misdirecting money,” UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said in a press release. “Those first responders and firefighters on the front lines who are risking their lives fighting wildfires need support.”
Supporting those firefighters means adopting more effective strategies to contain fires, according to the report. Much of the modern western world has emphasized eradicating all fires, even those that were a natural part of the ecosystem. Ironically, firefighting can actually lead to more intense fires, as it allows dry tinder to build up on forest floors.
In contrast, some indigenous peoples, such as the Karuk tribe in California, traditionally set small, controlled fires that kept larger, spontaneous wildfires more manageable. The UN report recommends leaning on that indigenous knowledge and focusing on controlled burns and other ways to heal remove dead branches and vegetation that can fuel wildfires. That could include thinning out forests, grazing livestock in strategic places, and encouraging the growth of less combustible plants to create fuel gaps. It’s an argument that has been gaining steam 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 grown in and around fire-prone areas, which could make wildfires even more disastrous. And with climate change causing more landscapes to burn — even in unexpected places like the Arctic — those communities need to be better prepared, the report said. That includes making houses and infrastructure that are more resistant to fire, issuing air quality warnings for smoke, planning evacuation routes and earmarking more money for recovery efforts. Preserving some open spaces as buffers between people and wildfires is also key. The report also proposes establishing international standards to better protect the health and safety of firefighters.
Mitigating climate change by sticking to the goals of the Paris Agreement will also make it easier for countries to prevent more catastrophic fires, the report’s authors say. 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.
“It is not possible to rule out the risk of wildfires,” the report states. “But a lot can be done to manage and reduce risks.”