A dramatic increase in extreme bushfires over the next 80 years will cause growing rates of death and illness, a United Nations report warns.
Events similar to the 2019-2020 Black Summer or the 2020 Arctic fires could increase by 31 to 57 per cent, in any given year, by 2100, researchers predict.
Despite the growing threat, the new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report found governments are not prepared.
The report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, identified three “crucial next steps” policymakers must follow to combat the impending crises.
Invest in planning, prevention and recovery
Learn from other nations and Indigenous leaders
Coordinate multinational responses to fires
What are the health effects likely to be?
Victims killed directly by fire tend to be more widely reported than the thousands who die from the pollution they cause.
One study estimated 30,000 people in 43 countries die from bushfire smoke each year, and it’s believed it contributed to 429 deaths amid Black Summer.
Toxic plumes from bushfires have also been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular illness, as well as increased neurological disorder risk.
People affected by bushfire smoke were also found to be at a greater risk from impaired health after Covid-19 infection.
Livestock in fire affected areas of the United States were also found to suffer from compromised reproduction, pneumonia, poor milk production and poor weight gain.
What’s causing growing extreme fire risk?
Changes in land use and climate change were listed as two key issues responsible for worsening bushfires.
Logging and fragmentation of forest can introduce multiple ignition points into bushland, and reduce cloud cover, resulting in dryer conditions.
Grazing of livestock and removal of vegetation were found to reduce the impact of fires in specific areas, but they are also contributors to climate change.
How does climate change contribute to the issue?
Greenhouse gas emissions are causing more extreme weather including rainfall anomalies, strong winds, dry lightning and high temperatures.
Seasonal changes are resulting in longer bushfire seasons which increase both the likelihood of bushfires and intensity.
These fires result in more carbon from the bushfire smoke, along with biomass change and thawing permafrost, creating a global heating feedback loop.
What is the impact on bushfires?
Just two years after the devastating 2019 - 2020 Black Summer bushfires, koalas have been listed as endangered in NSW, Queensland and ACT.
The UN report warned an increase in bushfires could be “fast-tracking extinctions” of many more animal and plant species.
More frequent fires have the capacity to impact native species on a number of fronts including direct habitat loss and death, along with creating conditions which attract feral animals.
More on Australia's wildlife crisis:
What do we do now?
Globally, governments spend less than one per cent of bushfire response funds on planning and prevention and the UNEP are urging a rethink.
“Dropping water from helicopters is a sign of failure rather than hope,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said.
Sydney University’s Dr Ayesha Tulloch, a co-author of the report, said better management of landscapes will help reduce the impact of fire.
“Fire is changing because human activities have changed the landscapes and the weather conditions in which it occurs,” she said.
“It’s not going to magically stop no matter what we do, but if we manage our landscapes better, we can significantly reduce its impacts on us and on nature.”
Dr Tulloch said in Australia “a lot more recognition and support” of Indigenous fire mitigation techniques is needed, along with better policies to improve land use.
“It’s much cheaper to invest now to try to reduce the likelihood of future megafires occurring, by building strong, healthy ecosystems that are resilient into the future,” she said.
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