November 6, 2014, by Tim Radford
The blackened landscape left behind by a bushfire in Australia.
Image: Malcolm Paterson/CSIR via Wikimedia Commons
As climate change and population growth increase the risks from wildfires, researchers warn that we must co-exist and deal with the danger as we do with earthquakes, hurricanes or floods. LONDON, 6 November, 2014 − Towns, rural settlements and even whole societies will become increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic losses unless people learn to live with wildfire, rather than try to fight it. But Max Moritz, of the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and research colleagues from the US and Australia report in Nature journal that they also found evidence from three continents suggesting that government policies can make things worse. Fire-fighting strategies and land-use practices actually encourage development on inherently hazardous landscapes, and so risk making losses more calamitous in the decades to come as climate change and population increase exacerbate the hazard.
Naturally at risk
The researchers considered the Mediterranean basin of Europe, the south-western US, and Australia − three regions in which wildfires play a part in the natural management of the ecosystems, and therefore all naturally at risk, and all home to communities badly hit by wildfires in recent years. The research paper concludes: “The ‘command and control’ approach typically used in fire management neglects the fundamental role that fire regimes have in sustaining biodiversity and key ecosystem services. Unless people view and plan for fire as an inevitable and natural process, it will continue to have serious consequences for both social and ecological systems.”
“Human losses will only be mitigated when land-use planning takes fire hazards into account”
All three regions have long dry seasons, and have evolved to depend on occasional, naturally-sparked fires to dispose of tinder-dry leaves and fallen branches that litter the forest floor. As a consequence, many native plants are adapted to survive, germinate and even flourish after periodic natural fires. The problems start when people try to settle, and exploit, such fire-prone regions. “We don’t try to ‘fight’ earthquakes – we anticipate them in the way we plan communities, build buildings, and prepare for emergencies,” Dr Moritz says. “We don’t think that way about fire, but our review indicates that we should. “Human losses will only be mitigated when land-use planning takes fire hazards into account in the same manner as other natural hazards, like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.”
Climate change and population growth will make the problem worse, and researchers have already warned that wildfires will become an increasing hazard worldwide − particularly in the western US. Australia, too, has become increasingly vulnerable as man-made climate change contributes to a series of catastrophic heat waves. The researchers suggest that authorities take a careful look at local problems, and start working on specifically appropriate solutions. These might involve new land use restrictions, new building codes, new vegetation management strategies, better maps of fire hazards, and better ways of warning people and getting them to safety. The clear message is that when it comes to wildfire, a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist. “A different view of wildfire is urgently needed,” Dr Moritz says. “We must accept wildfire as a crucial and inevitable natural process on many landscapes. There is no alternative. The path we are on will lead to a deepening of our fire-related problems worldwide, which will only become worse as climate changes.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.