PHILIPPINES – GLOBAL forest fires have become common occurrences in many parts of the world. They occur in the forested areas of the US and Canada as well as in the vegetated areas of South Africa. Called wildfires or bushfires in Australia, they normally occur during the dry season.
In the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, the Central Kalimantan province of Indonesia in Borneo island, frequent uncontrolled forest fires are yearly occurrences since 1982 mainly due to land clearing operations and the practice of kaingin (slash-and-burn agriculture) to give way to palm oil and rubber tree plantations. The haze from the yearly forest fire reaches other Asean countries, e.g., Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines. It brought about the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (2003), which is actually an emergency response agreement to the recurring haze pollution from Indonesia. No haze was recorded in 2020-2021 as land clearings were put on hold by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The most recent wildfires in Australia caused widespread environmental damage and wildlife fatalities. They killed 24 people and destroyed over 2,000 houses, displacing thousands. Similarly, wildfires in the US from 2019 to 2020 burned down more than 10.3 million acres of wild land. Most destructive was the 2020 California wildfire, which burned down 4.3 acres of land and was dubbed as the most extensive wildfire season in California’s modern history.
The rise of forest fire occurrence was also observed in the Amazon region of South America. It was unprecedented in destruction reaching devastating levels in 2019. The same is true of the Arctic region. The Russian town of Verkhoyansk became the first place above the Arctic Circle to experience temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in June 2020. The heat thawed frozen peat lands and burned an area the size of Belgium.
The longer fire seasons experienced in parts of the western US, Mexico, Brazil and Africa were attributed to changes in the timing of snow melt, vapor pressure, timing of spring rains, all of which are linked to global warming and climate change.
What are forest fires?
Forest fires, also known as bushfires, land fires or wildfires, are defined by the World Health Organization as unplanned, uncontrolled fires that burn in a natural area such as a forest grassland or prairie. It is a fire phenomenon described as a combustion of vegetation in an open environment. In fire management terminology, the term includes all burnable vegetation resources, including managed forests and forest plantations.
Natural forest fires are normally caused by lightning, but they may also be caused by volcanic activity, meteors or coal steam fires. Despite the negative impacts of fire, it is also an important process for recycling dead biomass especially in arid climates where decomposition rates are extremely slow.
Forest fires also occur due to human negligence mainly caused by unattended campfires, burning of debris, discarded cigarettes and malfunctioning equipment.
Soil type, human settlement densities and land management strategies are also key factors in forest fires. Studies show that annual forest fire emissions are influenced by an increase in local population and changes in land use.
Forest fires and climate change
Climate change creates conditions that are conducive to forest fires such as higher temperatures, lower precipitation and higher surface wind speeds. This fact is supported by studies, which show that warmer temperatures influence the intensity and duration of forest fire seasons all over the globe, causing the fire season to become longer in duration and wider in scope. Changes in climate create warmer and drier conditions which in turn increases drought and forest fire risks.
Furthermore, carbon dioxide emission from fires can exceed by 50 percent of fossil fuel combustion emissions. Carbon emissions, as widely acknowledged nowadays, are a known cause of global warming and climate change which in turn lead to various environmental concerns such as the melting of polar ice caps, sea level rise, frequency of weather events, to name a few.
Forest fires significantly impact the quality of vegetation, reduction of wildlife habitat and loss of biodiversity in both terrestrial and aquatic environments and may have great economic and social repercussions. For one, fires greatly impact the air quality in the burning and surrounding areas. The smoke and the particles are released into the atmosphere and can reach large areas and travel great distances aggravating air pollution and even pose a danger to human health and safety.
Forest fires also produce carbon monoxide, which is toxic and potentially lethal to humans and animals. Plants and trees that survive fires have decreased resistance to disease, fungus and insects following burn damage.
Forest fire legislation
Most forest legislation around the world emphasize suppression of fire rather than addressing the underlying cause of fire. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recommends the development of national legislation and guidelines that focus on integrated and community-based fire management and involve a wider range of stakeholders.
In pursuit of this, the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior introduced a new land management policy called the “Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy Forests Restoration Act.” Its objective is to improve regulatory processes in addressing and reducing the risk of catastrophic forest fires. The policy promotes the logging of large, commercially valuable trees to lessen the burnable fuel and risk of igniting forest fires near human settlements. The new policy, however, did not consider other factors such as the role of climate change in the increasing occurrence of forest fires worldwide.
Heightened forest fires during the last five years were greatly attributed to inadequate forest management. Markedly absent is the application of biological, physical, managerial, economic and policy principles relative to the regeneration, utilization, conservation of forests to meet identified goals and objectives while maintaining the productivity of the forest. Even legislation addressing forest fires is fragmented in different laws focusing on urban fires, emphasizing their suppression rather than prevention. Considering the present state of the world’s forest ecosystem, it is high time for laws to focus on forest with due regard to fire preparedness.
In connection therewith, the role of global warming in the continuously increasing forest fires should be taken into consideration in formulating forest fire legislation. This presupposes forest fire data compilation, risk management and assessment of high-risk areas.
Most likely, forest fires will recur from time to time as long as temperatures continue to rise. Policy changes, e.g., forest fire suppression strategies, training for first responders, controlled burning to ensure that the fire does not cause transboundary air pollution as well as addressing the root causes of what makes forest fires deadly and widespread should also be priorities.