2.1.4 More forest fires

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"What climate change does is exacerbate the conditions in which the bushfires happen."
Dr Imran Ahmed, climate scientist at the Australian National University

The hot, dry conditions produced as a result of climate change also increase the chance of - and the spread of - forest fires. Indeed, hotter years have been shown to have more fires and the 2019 Lancet Countdown report found that human exposure to wildfires has doubled since 2000. Wildfires can also dramatically increase air pollution: see the section on how we are polluting our air.

Wildfires are Earth’s greatest natural disturbance affecting an area the size of India every year. Large forest fires in the western United States have become five times more frequent since the 1970s and 80s, scorching over six times as much land, and lasting almost five times as long.

Indeed, recent years have seen record-breaking wildfires take hold across the globe. The UK saw a record breaking number of fires in 2019 leading scientists to conclude that climate change "has already led to increasing wildfire risk". This included the Saddleworth moor fire, which burned during the UK’s warmest winter day on record.

In 2016, the Fort McMurray Fire in Canada, estimated to have been madeup to six times more likely by climate change, burnt through 1.5 million acres of forest, burned 2,400 homes and buildings and caused 80,000 people to flee their homes - resulting in $10 billion in damage. The devastating recent bushfires in Australia are now estimated to have burnt 20% of Australia’s forest cover, destroyed more than 1,500 homes and killed over 1 billion animals. Experts had been warning for years that a hotter, drier climate would contribute to bushfires becoming more frequent and more intense.

Wildfires have also decimated more than 52,000 square miles of Arctic forest in Siberia, with 11,000 square miles destroyed in just 3 months, making it the largest wildfire disaster in the history of Russia. Other huge areas of the Arctic caught fire too, from eastern Siberia to Greenland to Alaska, with more than 4,000 square miles of forest burned in Alaska. Thomas Smith, an Assistant Professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics, told USA Today: "These are some of the biggest fires on the planet, with a few appearing to be larger than 380 square miles."

To make matters worse, these Arctic fires are having huge knock-on effects on global warming. Smith said: "The fires are burning through long-term carbon stores (peat soil) emitting greenhouse gases, which will further exacerbate greenhouse warming, leading to more fires."