The world is still burning

The world is still burning

July 2021 had unenviably been labelled Earth’s hottest month on record, thanks to data from NOAA’s National Centres for Environmental Information.  The land surface temperature in the northern hemisphere was an unprecedented 1.54C (2.77F) above average.  It is no wonder then, that 2021 has seen some of the worst destruction from wildfires we’ve seen.

Russia has suffered its largest wildfire season in the history of satellite observation, burning across 17.08 million hectares of land, beating the 2012 season.  Environmentalists place blame for the unprecedented season on Russian firefighting policy which allows regions to ignore fires if the cost of extinguishing them outweighs the expected costs of damages.

Wildfires in the Arctic are becoming more common, with a lack of rainfall in the Yakutai region of Russia causing more frequent and intense fires which account for around 80% of Russia’s total wildfires throughout the year – one of these blazes is on track to become the largest single wildfire ever recorded.  Now there is evidence that the forest fires in the area are now contributing to the permafrost melting, leaving the now un-frozen peat at risk of harbouring Holdover or “Zombie” fires, which smoulder underground during the winter months, ready to surface again in the warmer summer months to cause more damage.

These Holdover fires aren’t just a problem in Russia, they’re becoming more and more common in the Boreal Forest of Alaska and The Northern Territories’.  Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service, at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting have been monitoring these fires globally via satellite and have developed an algorithm to predict where these fires will rear their heads again next season, enabling better management of fires.  

However, Holdover fires only count for approximately 1% of the fires in the arctic regions, and while they are growing in number, the main cause is still lightening strike.  After a relatively quite season in 2020, Canada has experienced one of its worst seasons in recent years.  Nationally, there have been 6,224 fires to date (compared to 3,665 at the same time last year). The total area burned is over 4.18 million hectares (compared to 236,956 hectares at the same time last year). The 10-year average for area burned over the same time frame is just over 2.59 million hectares.  

Further south, Brazil once again suffered wildfires in both the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands.  While there is always focus on the Amazon, this year seems to have seen a significant reduction, with 16,747 blazes in the month of September, compared to 32,017 hotspots recorded in the previous year.  On the border with Paraguay the Pantanal Wetlands have had their second worst fire season in a decade, with over 1.7 million acres burnt between January and August 2021.  

But rising temperatures and natural phenomena aren’t only to blame for wildfires.  The Greek wildfires prompted the prosecutor of Greece’s Supreme Court to call for an investigation into an organised arson plot as part of “organised criminal activity”, and a number of people have been arrested, which has added to the wildfires.  The fires in Greece were the worst since 2007 and saw more than 125,000 hectares of forest & arable land burnt – all during Greece’s worst heatwave since 1987.

While Greece made the headlines with it’s almost unprecedented wildfires, many other countries in and around the Mediterranean Sea were also effected.  The Anatolia region of Turkey has seen ferocious forest fires through 53 provinces, with nine people losing their lives.  Saint Tropez in France saw locals and tourists evacuated, while over 750 firefighters worked to put out several fires which destroyed 3,500 hectares of woodland.  Italy suffered multiple wildfires, as it experienced a heatwave which soared to 49˚C, beating the previous record of 48˚C measured in Athens in 1977.  Sicily and Calabria in particular were badly affected, as firefighters carried out more than 500 operations in a 12-hour period, using five aeroplanes to bring the situation under control.

Looking to the future, 2020 and 2021 have been El Niña years in the South Pacific, and this is expected to continue through to early 2022.  This typically causes dryer winter conditions in the southwest of the USA, setting up conditions which could encourage more wildfires next year.  The phenomenon also causes wetter and colder winter conditions in the northwest USA and Canada, which will hopefully see a decrease in fires after Canada’s record year.  

But could this El Niña lead to another record-breaking year across California, such as we saw in 2020?  The current 2021 has seen a smaller number of fires, and an approximately 25% reduction in area burnt compared to 2020, but the season came unusually early, amid an on-going drought, and historically low rainfall.  The Dixy fire has been this year’s largest wildfire, over 963,309 acres, across six counties, burning from July to October 2021 and is currently the second largest wildfire in Californian history.

Hydrologists in Montana have been anxiously tracking El Niña throughout the year, in the hope that it will bring winter rains and end its worst drought in 20 years.  But while El Niña delivered these last year, it wasn’t enough to keep the state out of an extreme drought.  Now, in December the state is experiencing late season wildfires in the town on Denton, which has seen homes and livelihoods lost, including large grain silos.  This fire has burnt 7,000 acres within the space of 2 days, and is thought to have been started by powerlines, and was then spread by winds which have reached up to 70 mph in the area.

In Australia, the bushfire season is still underway, and eastern Australia has a below average outlook, once again thanks to El Niña.  The 2020 – 2021 season has been dubbed the quietest fire season in a decade with only 250,000 hectares burned in the year starting June 1st, 2020 – less than 2% of the total area burnt in the previous season.  Mercifully no deaths were reported as a result of Australia wildfires this season.  The less hazardous fire conditions were underpinned by a La Nina weather pattern, which saw Australia registering its wettest weather in four years and its coolest in nine – though it also had the downside of causing massive floods in parts of the country’s east coast.  Western Australia, which doesn’t experience the rain brought by El Niña was worse hit in the previous season and is expected to be so again this time round.

Weather patterns aside, what is heartening to see, is that so many countries are offering to help one another when it comes to fighting fires, as well as NATO.  Resource sharing is becoming a bigger part of tackling the blazes.  Thanks to an extended period of national preparedness in Canada, The United Sates was able to responds to requests for wildfire fighting resources by agencies in Canada, with Mexican, Australian and South African personnel assisting in the southwestern Canadian provinces.   The previously mentioned wildfires in Greece saw 25 countries from around world, including The UAE and Qatar offer assistance in the form of aircraft, vehicles and personnel.

There have been some interesting innovations in tackling wildfires this year, including a Chinese adaption of its electromagnetic rail gun.  Developed by The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) it’s capable of projecting a firefighting bomb up to 250 km away.  The technology is still in prototype stage at the moment, but the high precision system does not use any form of explosives to launch and would decrease the need to send pilots into risky situations to try to extinguish fires.

Advances in AI, satellite imagery and computer modelling are helping too, with a degree of accuracy which was unheard of 5 years ago.  We now have tools to map fire spread in real time, and model it better that weather predictions.  This enables teams to be more strategic and work to keep people, homes and businesses safe, while letting fires do the work they need to do with regard to helping recycle dead vegetation into soil.  

Another development, which has been tested by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, is a cellulose based gel which acts as a bonding agent for other fire-retardant chemicals.  When sprayed onto vegetation, this provides 100% protection against fire even after an inch of rainfall.  Treating small areas of land, such as roadsides and parks could prevent stray embers at campgrounds, tossed cigarettes on roadsides, sparks from electrical lines etc, from starting many fires in the first instance.  

Looking forward to 2022, we can hope that these developments will be put to use alongside other prevention and management techniques.