Extreme wildfires are multiplying, sustained by warmer nights, studies find

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Indonesia’s peatlands, California’s forests and, now, vast swathes of Argentine wetland have all been ravaged by extreme wildfires, heralding a fiery future and the dire need to prevent it.

With climate change triggering droughts and farmers clearing forests, the number of extreme wildfires is expected to increase 30 per cent within the next 28 years, according to a landmark United Nations report. And they are now scorching environments that were not prone to burning in the past, such as the Arctic’s tundra and the Amazon rainforest.

“We’ve seen a great increase in recent fires in northern Syria, northern Siberia, the eastern side of Australia, and India,” said Australian government bushfire scientist Andrew Sullivan, an editor on the report released Wednesday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal environmental communications group.

How warmer nights sustain fires

At the same time, the slow disappearance of cool, damp nights that once helped to temper fires also means they are getting harder to extinguish, according to a second study published last week in the journal Nature.

The night sky appears orange as wildfires rage on at the shores of Cokertme, a village on Turkey’s southwest coast, on Aug. 2, 2021. The slow disappearance of cool, damp nights that once helped to temper fires means they are getting harder to extinguish, a new study finds. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

With nighttime temperatures rising faster than daytime ones over the last four decades, researchers found a 36 per cent increase in the number of after-dark hours that were warm and dry enough to sustain fire.

“This is a mechanism for fires to get much bigger and more extreme,” said Jennifer Balch, lead author of the Nature study and director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Earth Lab.

“Exhausted firefighters don’t get relief,” she said, which means they can’t regroup and revise strategies to tackle a blaze.

Growing costs and damage

The consequences of extreme fires are wide-ranging, from loss and damage to costly firefighting response. In the United States alone, the UNEP report said the economic burden of wildfire totals as much as $347 billion US annually.

With California’s forests ablaze, the state government spent an estimated $3.1 billion US on fire suppression in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle near Porto Velho, Brazil, on Sept. 9, 2019. Wildfires are now scorching environments that were not prone to burning in the past, such as the Arctic’s tundra and the Amazon rainforest, the UN report says. (Bruno Kelly/Reuters)

The fires raging since December in Argentina’s Corrientes province have taken an enormous toll, killing Ibera National Park wildlife, charring pasturelands and livestock, and decimating crops, including yerba mate, fruit and rice. Losses already have exceeded 25 billion Argentine pesos ($296 million Cdn), the Argentine Rural Society said.

The UNEP report calls on governments to rethink wildfire spending, recommending they put 45 per cent of their budget toward prevention and preparedness, 34 per cent toward firefighting response and 20 per cent for recovery.

“In many regions of the world, most resources go toward response — they focus on the short term,” said Paulo Fernandes, a contributing author of the UNEP report and fire scientist at Universidade of Tras-os-Montes and Alto Douro in Portugal.



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