How to Manage Fire to Cut Pollution and Slow Climate Change

How to Manage Fire to Cut Pollution and Slow Climate Change

13 October 2015

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World/GFMC–  Here’s a “Your Dot” contribution on the many benefits of managing fires in forests, savannah and peatlands — including slowing global warming, protecting threatened ecosystems and reducing noxious palls of haze. It comes from Lindon N. Pronto, a young former federal wildland firefighter from California who is completing a master of science degree in environmental governance at the University of Freiburg in Germany. Pronto also works at the Global Fire Monitoring Center at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in that city. He’s in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this week at the Sixth International Wildland Fire Conference.

One strategy with implications for climate-treaty talks, he writes, is using controlled fires to cut chances of more intense blazes that emit far more short-term greenhouse gases and degrade ecosystems.

The piece is timely given how much uncontrolled fires have been in the news of late, from the American West to Indonesia, where President Joko Widodo just expressed regret to Malaysia over the resulting harmful haze. For more on that situation please read Joe Cochrane’s excellent report on the fires for The Times and watch drone video shot by Greenpeace here. (This also happens to be the International Day for Disaster Reduction.)

Here’s Pronto’s piece:

Fire Management, Pollution and Climate

By Lindon Pronto

When raging wildfires make the news in the United States, viewers most often watch 100-foot flame fronts threatening luxury homes in Southern Californian or log cabins nestled in the forested Pacific Northwest. Fires have been largely excluded from the climate change discussions, but fortunately this is changing to include consideration of fire as both a consequence and driver of climate change.

In the tropics, fire has been used to manage and tame landscapes through most of human history. But the scale of burning, particularly in Indonesia, has made fire’s environmental impacts an international issue, both by sending dangerous haze across borders and adding to the global buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases warming the climate.

Recent drone footage shot by Greenpeace in Indonesia shows devastation on an astounding scale — combusted rain forest and peatlands smoldering to the horizon. Unfortunately, this is not new.

With a much-anticipated round of climate treaty negotiations starting in Paris on Nov. 30, scientists and fire management specialists are strongly considering the gains in integrating improved fire management practices into climate related agreements and policies. This is a central focus at the International Wildland Fire Conference this week.

Here’s why this could help slow global warming. Global vegetation fire emissions typically constitute a third of total releases of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping emission, annually (1). For example, fires burning in Indonesia alone during the potent El Niño event in 1997 and 1998 produced the equivalent of up to 40 percent of the global gross carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels for that year (2).

This dry season is shaping up to be on track, or worse.

Additionally, every year an average of 608 million hectares burn (over 1.5 billion acres) (3) while an estimated annual average of 339,000 people die prematurely from ailments linked to vegetation fire smoke, with 110,000 of those deaths occurring in Southeast Asia. During previous El Niño years like this one, that global average spiked to some 530,000 deaths (4).

Worldwide, vegetation fires are showing a trend toward longer burning periods, increased fire severity, larger areas burned and increased (mostly human caused) frequency – with all of these factors contributing to more damaging environmental impacts, higher shares of emissions and increasing socioeconomic costs, including greater threats to human health and security.

Scientists are warning that amplifying positive feedbacks appear to be developing in sensitive areas. These ecosystems, primarily the Arctic tundra (5), peatlands (1), and tropical rain forests (6, 7, 8), harbor ancient, highly-concentrated carbon stocks, which are rapidly released during fire events like the one in Indonesia.

During last year’s round of climate treaty talks, in Lima, Peru, a statement issued by the Global Fire Monitoring Center underscored the need to address global vegetation fires in the context of climate change, referring to the work of 58 scientists who evaluated the global state of fire between 1993 and 2014. The full findings are in a 400-page white paper commissioned by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

Teams are also assessing ways to improve understanding and management of fire’s impacts on the terrestrial environment, on human populations and infrastructure and on the atmosphere – including from cross-border smoke or radioactive fallout from contaminated areas consumed by fire (9).

One tangible result is an agreement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to combat trans-boundary haze from fires. Other efforts include the International Wildfire Preparedness Mechanism, the International Fire Aviation Working Group, the EuroFire project, the spreading standardization of incident command procedures, the GOFC-GOLD fire monitoring and mapping program, and numerous regional and bilateral agreements.

The next logical step would be a coherent global fire strategy. ASEAN aside, no formal commitments have been made for international disaster preparedness and responses related to large vegetation fires. Flexible yet concerted strategies combining regulatory, informational, economic and organizational instruments, should consider local to global arrangements.

A scientifically-informed cooperative strategy for managing vegetation fires with the climate in mind might help defuse tensions between rich and poor nations tussling over provisions in the draft climate agreement on climate aid and emissions cuts.

Policy approaches could support and include:

– Knowledge transfer and capacity building

– Early fire detection, warning and monitoring systems

– Distinguishing between constructive and destructive fire

– Increased application of prescribed fire in appropriate ecosystems

– Reviewing regional and national policies and law enforcement effectiveness

– Embracing innovation and creativity, along with science and technology

– Using existing institutions; creating new ones where needed

– Applying community based fire management and incorporating indigenous knowledge

– Searching for alternatives to fire in land-use change

– Enhancing trans-boundary cooperation, exchanges, and protocols

– Addressing fire-induced immediate threats to human health and security

Many of these objectives are already under consideration, development or implementation, making it conceivable that they can be shaped into a more comprehensive program. Fire occurrence and fire landscapes, unlike other environmental disturbances, can be effectively managed to result in landscapes that either welcome, or discourage, subsequent fires and can offer a comparatively low-cost means of curbing greenhouse-gas emissions in the short and medium term. Local communities play a critical role in such a strategy.

As the esteemed fire historian Stephen Pyne puts it, we must address the bigger problem, Man’s burning of neolithic landscapes—more commonly referred to as fossil fuels.

In the end, we must address the bigger problem, emissions from burning fossil fuels.

But replacing fossil fuels with renewables at a global scale will take time. While the heavily touted “solutions” are things like incrementally more fuel-efficient vehicles, more sustainable consumption and waste reduction, we could conceivably look to improving wildfire management to buy some time while we sort out the fossil fuel challenge.

Simply put, fire must be carefully applied and delicately managed in natural fire landscapes, and appropriately excluded from where it does not belong.


1. Page, Susan E., et al. 2002. The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, p. 61-65.

2. Spessa, Allan, et al. 2013. Modeling Vegetation Fires and Fire Emissions. Johann G. Goldammer (ed.). Vegetation Fires and Global Change– Challenges for Concerted International Action. Remagen-Oberwinter : Kessel Publishing House, p. 181-207.

3. Mouillot, Florent and Field, Christopher B. 2005. Fire history and the global carbon budget: a 1×1 fire history reconstruction for the 20th century. Global Change Biology Vol. 11, 398–420.

4. Stratheropoulus, Milt, Karma, Sofia and Goldammer, Johann Georg. 2013. Vegetation Fire Smoke Emissions and Human Health. Ed. Johann Georg Goldammer. Vegetation and Global Change — Challenges for Concerted International Action. A White Paper directed to the United Nations and International Organizations. Remagen-Oberwinter: Kessel Publishing House, 2013 p.247

5. Mack, Michelle C., et al. Carbon loss from an unprecedented Arctic tundra wildfire. Nature 475, 489–492. doi:10.1038/nature10283

6. Barlow, J. und Peres, C. A. 2004. Ecological responses to El Niño–induced surface fires in central Brazilian Amazonia: management implications for flammable tropical forests. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Vol. 359, No. 1443, 367-380.

7. Cochrane, M. A., & Laurance, W. F. 2002. Fire as a large-scale edge effect in Amazonian forests. Journal of Tropical Ecology. 18, 311-325.

8. Barlow, J., et al. 2003. Large tree mortality and the decline of forest biomass following Amazonian wildfires. Ecology Letters. 6, 6-8.

9. Goldammer, Johann Georg. 2013. Beyond Climate Change: Wildland Fires and Human Security in Cultural Landscapes in Transition– Examples from Temporate-Boreal Eurasia. Johann G. Goldammer (ed.). Vegetation Fires and Global Change– Challenges for Concerted International Action. Remagen-Oberwinter : Kessel Publishing House, p. 285-311.

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