A new approach is urgently needed to tackle global wildfires, as current methods no longer work, drain the public purse and endanger lives, according to experts.
This summer saw some of the worst wildfires in history, underscoring the devastating effects of global warming. As Cop26 approaches and is expected to shed light on the importance of protecting ecosystems and building defenses to avoid loss of home and life, experts say a lack of foresight and funding worldwide means that harmful wildfires will continue to rage and endanger communities and firefighters.
Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire consultant at the University of California, said: “We see that our historic approach to firefighting is no longer working. We saw this summer in California that it was totally inefficient to go out, attack fires and put them out. ”
In July, the Dixie fire in California spread to nearly 1 m acres (400,000 acres). Bulldozers were used to dig fires, but the flames spread regardless.
Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science at Imperial College London, said efforts to combat wildfires were incorrectly focused on suppression techniques. Hundreds of firefighters spend weeks fighting flames, with millions of pounds spent on equipment, including bulldozers, retardants, helicopters and aircraft.
“Fighting a fire with hundreds of people and tankers is the last thing we need to do. It is a desperate attempt when everything else has failed, ”he said.
Fire services around the world often rely on volunteer and seasonal firefighters who work long hours under dangerous conditions for little or no pay, Rein and Quinn-Davidson said. Firefighters who spoke to The Guardian described frightening experiences.
Babis Zaccharis, a Greek firefighter in Greece, said: “Volunteers get paid nothing. The state gives them in the Greek fire department some equipment, but not everything needed, so I bought my own. I’m happy to do this, but not everyone can. Unlike employed firefighters, our families receive no compensation if we die on duty. ”
Rein said more firefighters will be needed as fires continued to wreak havoc, but many firefighters struggled. “The risk of failure is terrible,” he said. “It does not fail your job, it does not protect the lives of your people and their property. It’s very stressful. ”
“We must be careful [firefighters] more – their health, their mental health. They have to be happy and in good shape because we need them more, ”he said.
This year, at least one volunteer firefighter died and two others were seriously injured in tackling fires in Greece.
Forest fires also have an invisible but deadly impact on human health. Researchers have linked 33,510 deaths a year to fire pollution.
But, Rein said, firefighting should be the last line of defense against wildfires: “They are the last layer that protects us from a disaster.” Dealing with the growing threat of wildfires involves prioritizing fire prevention and landscape management.
Not all wildfires are bad.
“Fire is a natural process and many landscapes around the world need fire,” said Cathelijne Stoof, an assistant professor specializing in wildfires at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Plants need fire to regenerate. Some need heat, some need smoke. A calm, gentle fire can clear the forest signatures under trees, so when a major fire comes, it does not do as much damage to the ecosystem or people. ”
Prescribed burns, intentional off-season fires that burn leaves and old wood and create breaks in the woods can reduce the risk.
Stoof, along with Rein and Quinn-Davidson, has called for more funding for fire prevention and education in how to deal with landscapes to prevent the fire from getting out of control.
Quinn-Davidson said that despite some progress, e.g. A bill in California to provide insurance for people who want to do this work needed more.
She said: “We need more people to make this work. We have a fraction of the people and resources we need to tackle this problem, not only to fight fires, but to carry out all the work the rest of the year, such as prescribed burns and thinning [vegetation]. We need to hire and train more people so that we have a skilled workforce to carry out this work. It requires funding. ”