Rising temperatures and intensified evaporation caused by climate change are leading to more frequent and more severe forest fires across the world. There are about 67 million hectares of forest land being burned every year from 2003 to 2012 and roughly 4.5 million fires were recorded globally in 2019 alone by Global Forest Watch (GFW). In Brazil, some 2136 VIIRS fire alerts within one week from June 21st 2022 to June 28th 2022 were recorded (GFW, 2022). Nearly half were detected to be high confidence alerts indicating that damage caused by each fire has been detected in multiple Landsat satellite images.
Forest fires can occur due to both natural and anthropogenic factors. One typical natural ignition source is lightning, which contributes to approximately one-third of the forest fires that take place in the global north summer months. Human activities that can result in forest fires include land clearing for agriculture and forestry. Farmers and businesses usually prefer land clearing as it is one of the easiest and most cost-efficient means for site preparation. Hence, a lack of supervision for the widely used large-scale clearing can lead to disastrous fires.
As forests play an extremely essential role in biodiversity for containing most of the on-land species, forest fire management should be taken into serious account in national laws.
Different countries’ legal frameworks of forest fire management vary as well. For example, Senegal and Argentina apply bottom-up or decentralised means of legal instruments (Morgera and Cirelli, 2009). Similarly, Indonesia also believes that local or community-based approaches are the most efficient. To be more specific, the central agency of Senegal, the Waters and Forests Agency, is responsible for the management of state forest areas and supervision of fire use. Moreover, the local is considered significant for duties like gathering voluntary fire departments, preventing forest fires, helping with reforestation, and more.
In comparison, Russia’s top-down fire management mainly relies on holders of leased forests. Harvestation of wood is only allowed for people with legal lease agreements, who are in charge of protecting the specified area of their leased forest. Common measures include constructing fire roads, preparing fire equipment, monitoring fire dangers, fighting fires, etc. However, critics have pointed out that emphasis on longer-term goals is necessary since short-term lease contracts are not sufficient enough for Russia’s worsening forest fire situation (Leskinen et al, 2020).
The European Union is not responsible for forest fire management for its Member States, instead, the latter have their own series of policies and measures to prevent and suppress fires if needed. At the same time, the EU helps them improve their fire management schemes and offers financial funds for fire-related matters. The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) keeps a close track of the number and damage of forest fires in Europe. It was created to set up a universal standard for recording forest fires across Europe to enhance fire prevention for its Member States (Jesús San-Miguel-Ayanz et al., 2012), which has greatly boosted forest fire data availability for the European countries.
Between 2018 and 2020, there have been substantial losses of human lives and biodiversity due to forest fires in the second and sixth most forested countries across the globe, Australia and Brazil (FAO, 2020). Furthermore, it is expected that fires will happen more frequently and more intensely in the foreseeable future with the increasing temperature caused by climate change.
The 2019-2020 massive fires in Australia have killed 33 people and millions of animals (World Bank, 2020). In particular, about 90% of the more than 5.6 million hectares of burnt land were forests in New South Wales (ABARES, 2020). Despite natural megafires being quite hard to prevent, the government can still protect the public from such disasters by setting more efficient fire response policies and regulations. The Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry has provided 76 recommendations to the NSW government to better prepare communities for potential fires (NSW government, 2020). It suggests that more research into effective fire fighting should be carried out since conventional strategies did not perform as ideally. The report further highlights that more accurate communications are needed during fires not only for at-risk residents to gain the most updated safety information but also for higher-efficiency fire suppression actions.
Over 80,000 fires were burned across Brazil in 2019 with more than 50% being the Amazonian forests (INPE, 2019). In spite of the fact that global warming made natural fires more likely, increased deforestation or land clearance played a more significant role in the dramatic increase in the area burned. A study aiming to explore the relationship between deforestation and forest fires has analysed a total deforested area of 3060 km2 and burned area of 3020 km2 between 2000 and 2010. Farmers and loggers were facing fewer restrictions on biomass burning and land clearance following the policies of the Bolsonaro administration intending to promote its economic growth.
However, no policy is perfect. Trade-offs and limitations are also not uncommon in fire management policies. Studies have shown that managed forests or forests under fire precaution and/or suppression are more likely to catch larger and more devastating fires. Natural forests experience fires periodically leaving few large trees and many saplings and low grass. When a forest fire strikes, only the lower-height plants will encounter damage, but the large trees can survive the slight burn. By contrast, managed forests have trees of all sizes leading them to be more vulnerable to fires. Therefore, foresters have been deliberately setting controllable small-scale fires to avoid the complete destruction of natural fire cycles.
In addition, a single focus of policies on the suppression of fires can disturb how the whole ecosystem works rather than solving the long-term fire problem. Some forest scientists specify that putting effort into suppressing every fire has affected the natural alteration of different plant groups (Oberle, 1969). Without cyclical forest fires, animals would lose their diversified food source too as the growth of new plants is made possible after each fire.
Although there is some realization of the need for a more integrated system of fire management, more research should still be carried out to discover more balanced policies and regulations.
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Zhen is a second-year Environmental Geoscience student at University College London. Her interests in sustainability and the green sector have grown considerably after starting her relevant degree, and she is passionate about creating a more environment-friendly economy.