Fight Fire With Fire
The case for controlled burning carbon credits
“Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have the opportunity to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place ‘to be safe’ makes the big one much worse.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder *
When we look back at what made the headlines in 2023, wildfires are likely to feature as one of the most important news stories of the year. From the Canadian forest fires that belched orange smoke over New York, to Greece which experienced the largest ever recorded wildfire in the EU, and to the deadly blaze on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Climate scientists believe that a warmer world coupled with land-use changes mean that extreme wildfires are likely to become more intense, increasingly frequent, and afflict areas of the world not currently use to dealing with fire risk. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the global incidence of extreme fires is projected to increase by up to 14% by 2030, 30% by the end of 2050 and 50% by the end of the century.1
In addition to the risk to human life and livelihoods, wildfires result in massive plumes of carbon emissions and a loss of biodiversity.
When wildfire intensity rises to extreme levels, dead organic material that would otherwise decompose is burnt under the high temperatures. Instead of carbon being sequestered into the soil, it is released into the air. Intense wildfires also destabilise the soil, breaking off carbon-based organic matter from minerals and killing soil bacteria and fungi.
Global emissions from wildfires in 2023 are estimated to be the third-worst on record, according to Copernicus, the European earth observation agency, covering data for the first eight months of the year. The Canadian wildfires accounted for more than one-quarter of the global total.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
Governments typically start trying to mitigate fire risk in the wrong places. The initial step is better predictions. A better fire-forecasting system would of course have enormous benefits. It would enable firefighters to put fire breaks in place, position expensive fire planes in the right locations, all the while minimising the risk to life and property.
However, if you thought weather forecasting was complex, predicting the path that wildfires take is on another level. To stay one step ahead of the fanning flames you need to simulate the wind direction, temperatures, humidity, soil temperatures and dryness, the amount and type of flammable material, as well as the potential reflexive impact that the wildfire, in turn, could have on the weather. And that ignores predicting the most important variable - the source and location of the ignition. Lightning is one of the main causes of wildfires.
The next step governments take is investing in the equipment to douse the fire with water and fire retardants. For example, in the aftermath of the Greek wildfires this year the European Commission announced it will purchase 12 new ‘Canadair’ aircraft to increase the capacity of its aerial firefighting fleet. There’s very little evidence of a correlation between airdrops and fire-fighting success. Aerial firefighting could be more about being seen to do something, rather than nothing at all.
The chances of success are much greater if authorities invest in prevention. Unfortunately no one won an election for preventing a raging wildfire from happening. That being said, we can learn from experiences elsewhere in the world where small fires have long been allowed to burn out in a bid to prevent huge wildfires from occurring.
The tropical savannahs of northern Australia are among the world’s most fire prone regions. The savannas tend to burn in the late dry season, ignited by high temperatures, fanned by strong winds, and fuelled by the build-up of dry tinder. Indigenous communities in Australia had long used fire to manage natural resources. But as indigenous people were forced from or left their traditional lands, the practice stopped, allowing large and intense bushfires to develop.
Controlled (also known as prescribed) burning cleanses the area of the most flammable material, preventing it from accumulating. This form of active fire management means that the savannah is subject to frequent shocks, but one never big enough to be catastrophic. Controlled burning, primarily in the early dry season, helps to protect communities from catastrophic fires and means that significantly less carbon is emitted since there is less biomass available to burn.
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