In recent years, extensive wildfires, characterized by dark plumes of smoke that often stretch across national borders, have captured international headlines. So far, 2023 has proven particularly severe, with fires blazing across the Amazon basin, Canada, and Europe. These fires profoundly impact people's lives, endanger ecosystems, and release large amounts of greenhouse gases. Worryingly, their frequency and intensity are increasing. Here we answer four basic questions related to their causes and solutions, and the role different actors can play.
What causes wildfires? In most natural areas, vegetation fires are an age-old phenomenon. They may start for various reasons. Some are caused by natural events, like lightning strikes. More often, they result from human activities, such as campfires left unattended, cigarettes or intentional burning for land cultivation. Recently, we see such fires increasingly growing out of control, causing widespread destruction. Land use and forest management practices may contribute to fires spiraling out of control. This includes cutting down big trees vital for moisture control, draining peat swamp areas making them susceptible to fire, using fire for land clearing during dry spells, unchecked livestock grazing, accumulating dry vegetation inside the forest, and establishing flammable tree plantations. Importantly, changing climate patterns, leading to longer dry spells and hotter temperatures, make forests more vulnerable to fires.
What is needed to reduce wildfire risks? Instead of only reacting to wildfires when they happen, we should put more emphasis on preventing them in the first place. The key to wildfire prevention is improving land-use and forest management practices. Good prevention strategies may include the planting trees alongside crops to keep the soil moist, removing logging waste from logged-over forests, and restoring the water levels of drained peat swamp areas, among others. Crucially, these tactics should be underpinned by in-depth studies of the local situation. And, to minimize negative effects when wildfires do occur, land managers should invest in wildfire preparedness, by creating firebreaks, training local fire response teams, and developing early warning systems based on remote sensing technologies to detect and monitor areas with increased heat or fire activity. To ensure the success of these efforts, all parties – from plantation companies to local communities and authorities – must collaborate closely.
What role is there for Indigenous people and local communities? Many Indigenous people and local communities have experience with fire management. Such customary practices can provide lessons to improve fire management. For example, local people may burn certain areas on purpose, to clear out dry plants and to make firebreaks, which helps to prevent fires from spiralling out of control. They can also play a key role in spotting and responding to fires when they begin, especially when combined with modern technology, such as remote sensing. Local people will benefit from support with adapting to changing weather conditions and using modern monitoring tools. Moreover, local people’s role in wildfire prevention is likely to increase when they have secure rights to forest resources and are included in decision-making processes.
What needs to change at the international level? When fires are burning, they get a lot of international attention and money to fight them. But once the fire season is over, the attention wanes. Given that wildfires are an important source of greenhouse gas emissions, a part of the international climate funds should go to wildfire prevention and preparedness. Such efforts must be based on cross-country learning on integrated fire management, including experiences and practices from the Tropics.
Through the Fire-Smart Landscape Governance programme, the Tropenbos International network aims to reduce wildfire risks and impacts in Indonesia, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Ghana and Uganda, while promoting cross-country learning on landscape approaches for fire management.
Photo cover: Controlled fire in an agricultural plot in Pikin Slee, Upper Suriname River, Suriname. Photo: Sara Ramirez