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UNEP urges rethink on wildfire policy

The incidence of extreme fires around the world is expected to increase by as much as 50% by the end of the century, environmental experts warned.

The 2013 Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park
The 2013 Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park (AN/Mike Lewelling)

Rising global temperatures and changes in land use patterns are expected to drive up the incidence of extreme fires around the world by as much as 50% by the end of the century, the United Nations Environment Program reported on Wednesday.

Extreme fires globally will likely increase 14% by 2030 and 30% by 2050, according to a report by UNEP and Norway's GRID-Arendal that finds the world’s poorest nations are disproportionaly affected but concludes governments must spend more on preventive measures.

More wildfires are occurring in Australia, India, Indonesia, Russia and the United States, along with the Amazon region of South America. The report finds the blazes are becoming more frequent due to climate change-induced drought and higher temperatures, which is made still worse by the fires releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Some exceptions exist such as in some parts of Africa, where wildfires are decreasing as farmland uses rise.

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place," said UNEP's executive director, Inger Andersen. “We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change."

'Tinderboxes' in the making

The report, produced by some 50 researchers across six continents, finds the risks of wildfires will be distributed unequally due to varying factors such as heat waves and precipitation. Brush fires in places like Australia, Canada and the United States are becoming more intense, for example, while fires in some of the savannas of Africa have declined.

"The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes, while more extreme weather means stronger, hotter, drier winds to fan the flames," the report said. "Too often, our response is tardy, costly, and after the fact, with many countries suffering from a chronic lack of investment in planning and prevention."

It said the true cost of wildfires on the world's environments, economies and societies can last for years after the flames die out.

"We must work with nature, communities, harness local knowledge, and invest money and political capital in reducing the likelihood of wildfires starting in the first place and the risk of damage and loss that comes when they do," the report advised.