Another year of unprecedented wildfires

Another year of unprecedented wildfires

2022 has seen another reduction in wildfires over all in Australia since the unprecedented season of 2021 through 2020, mostly because of  La Niña.  The most searched for phrase on the internet from the country this year has been “When will the rain stop?”, but while the loss of property, wildlife and lives through fire has been reduced, parts of the east of the country have sustained massive flood damage, around 130,000 acres were damaged by wildfire in Western Australia, which didn’t see the same levels of rail fall.

On the other side of the world, the UK saw its own unprecedented events this year, with wildfires destroying homes in two separate instances near London for the first time, in what has been called by London Fire Brigade “The busiest day for firefighters since the end of the Second World War” with at least 110 fire trucks being sent to blazes across the capital. Temperatures in the UK reached 40ºC in some areas, and wildfires sprang up across the country, resulting in the loss of over 40 homes.

Elsewhere in Europe, other countries faced higher than average burnings. The European Union have released a report from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, stating that the cumulative burnt area in the EU over the summer months (4 June – 3 Sept) was 508,260 hectares, compared to the 2006 – 2022 average of 215,548 hectares. The increased activity is also reflected in in smoke emissions from wildfires with total wildfire emissions from the EU and the UK estimated to be around 6.4 megatons of carbon, the highest since 2007.

Around 1,500 people in the Zaragoza province of Spain had to flee their homes after a large wildfire grew rapidly over night.  The fire developed a 50 kilometre perimeter in less than 24 hours and it is estimated that up to 8,000 hectares have been burnt. Drought and extremely high temperatures in Spain turned 2022 into the worse year for of the century for forest fires.

The people of the Gironde region, France suffered a ‘megafire’ in July, which burned around 14,000 hectares, with over 100,000 people being evacuated from Bordeaux. The blaze appeared to be under control, but the heat retained in the forest floor in the area created a zombie fire, which re-emerged in the continuing dry conditions and accelerated new fires.  

More than 1,000 French firefighters, with colleagues from other European nations were bought in to tackle the fire, which caused so much damage that it’s predicted to take 30 years or more for the forest to recover. In total, the fires raged for nearly 20 days, with one of the firefighter saying “We are waiting for rain, for snow, for winter, for God.” The glacier melt water, which the forest has been previously reliant on for water has stopped flowing into the area, compounding the dryness from the hot weather.

The European Union sent two firefighting aeroplanes and two helicopters from its rescEU fleet stationed in Italy to Czechia on the Czech-German border, where fires ravaged a national park in Czechia’s north, assistance had already come from Poland and Slovakia. In addition, the EU’s Copernicus satellite was activated by Germany to collect data vital to first responders on the areas burned. The number of wildfires in 2022 have nearly quadrupled the 15 year average for the EU. The UN has warned that Europe is the fastest warming continent on the planet, “more than twice as much as the rest of the world over the last three decades.” The EU’s Copernicus Service has warned that this trend will cause exception heat, wildfires and floods.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador issued a state of emergency, experiencing the worst wildfires in the region in over 50 years. Communities on one southern peninsular were cut off from the rest of the province by the fires, which forced the closing of the Bay d’Espoir Highway – the remote, heavily wooded artery road which is the only road link to the rest of the province. Food was airlifted into the area, as firefighters tackled four active fires covering 10,800 hectares.

In South America, nearly 1,000 major fires burned in the Amazon during the 2022 fire season, most of which were linked to deforestation, but this was seen as a milder year in comparison with recent seasons. Early 2022 saw some areas of South America experiencing unusually high wildfire activity, with dry conditions across northern Argentina and Paraguay experiencing much higher-than-average emissions from fire, and much higher smoke transport. August saw the Paraná River grasslands burning completely out of control and effecting the local port operations, causing problems with shipping the country’s grain harvest. Recent years have seen a continuous drying out of the river’s delta, which is contributing to the issue. However, there have been accusation that these fries have been started deliberately, to transform wetlands into future real-estate developments. More than 10,000 hectares have been consumed by forest fires on the islands of the Paraná River in a month.

California had a relatively quiet wildfire season, with less than 363,000 acres burned, compared to 2.5 million and 4 million in the previous two years. However, the National Interagency Fire Centre has reported that overall, the USA has seen an increase of fires this year above the 10-year average. 59,547 fires had burned a total of 7,211,472 acers as of late October, compared to the 10-year average of 48,326 fires and the average acreage of 6,738,696. Yosemite National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site saw two unprecedented fires over the summer, burning 5,000 acres between them. Both are believed to have been caused by lightning strikes and rendered the air quality in the park “unhealthy” according to park data.

This year has also seen irreparable damage to another UNESCO World Heritage site of around the Rano Raraku Volcano on Easter Island. As well as damage to the local ecosystem, with more than 100 hectares affected, including the wetland areas, the Moai statues the island is famous for have been scorched and damaged irreparably.

Human factors linked to wildfires have long been known, and fire services and governments spend time and money to educate people in simple things they can do to reduce the risks of starting and spreading them. But another human factor has been brough sharply into focus this year in the form of war. It also sets an example of how catastrophic wildfires could become if we are not able to act to prevent or extinguish them. While forest fires in and around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are not uncommon, the likelihood is that this year they started in March due to shelling in the area. Ukrainian firefighters could not carry out their normal functions in the area because of Russian control of the plant. The major worry is fires which threaten powerlines to the plant, as well as the fires increasing the risk of radioactive contamination spreading further due to the fires, if power to the plant is disconnected for a long period of time, then the coolant surrounding the core will evaporate and no cooling will lead to a nuclear discharge. Clearly, the management of fires in the Red Forest are vital to the stability of the power plant, just as the stability of the region is vital to the management of the power plant.

The concern around Chernobyl can be used to highlight the international co-operation which is happening in other areas of the world. We can easily see how the EU shares and redeploys equipment and resources to areas most in need, both within its borders and outside of them. Likewise, Canada, New Zealand, the US and Singapore have sent firefighters and equipment to help in other countries when needed. Some experts in Great Britain are looking to countries such as Spain to see what firefighters in the UK can learn from services in other countries with more experience of tackling hotter and more ferocious wildfire which could become a reality in climates more associated with inclement weather. Similarly, an international exchange between Saudi Arabia and Charlotte in North Carolina is taking place, where firefighters from both countries are working side-by-side fighting fires and learning different techniques from each other.  

As we have seen this year, Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites can provide internet connections in remote areas, which in turn could make real time monitoring of wilderness with minimum infrastructure a reality, and we have seen new technological developments opening more options in detecting and preventing fires. Robotic tree-harvesting machines and remotely controlled water-spray units are being widely assessed.  The New Zealand government research body Scion, and the University of Canterbury has demonstrated a two-armed swinging’ robot harvester tool that can move from tree to tree without touching the ground, intended to help thin out otherwise inaccessible dense tree areas. Concepts for other robots to help with creating fire breaks and replanting of forests after wildfires are also gaining attention as scientists and designers work together to find solutions.