Quirks & Quarks

Another tragic and destructive year for wildfires — is this the new normal?

We look back at 2019 — the year in fire

We look back at 2019 — the year in fire

Fire and Rescue personal watch a bushfire as it burns near homes on the outskirts of the town of Bilpin on December 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by David Gray/Getty Images)
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Extreme wildfire was a global story in 2019 as wildfires around the world were dialed up in intensity and impact. 

"The warmer we get, the more fires we see; and the more intense the fire, the more difficult to impossible it is to put the fire out," said Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta.

One of the hardest hit areas this year was Australia, which has been experiencing record breaking heat. 

"They don't normally see this much fire or this intense fire. The warmer it gets, the better the atmosphere gets at sucking the moisture out of the fuel so it's easier for the fire to start and spread," he explained. "It also means there's more fuel to burn, which means fire management activities can't put that fire out." 

Fires have destroyed 1.2 million hectares of forest and grasslands in Bolivia this year, the government said on Wednesday, although environmentalists claim the true figure is much greater. (AIZAR RALDES/AFP via Getty Images)

The world watched earlier this year as Brazil burned, with fires set by humans to clear parts of the Amazon rainforest. Flannigan points out that this can set in motion a feedback by which exposed rainforest margins dry out, and are more prone to fire in succeeding years. 

2019 was a record year for forest fires above the Arctic circle, particularly in Siberia. These were in part a result of increased and unusual lightning storm activity in the north. One of the risks here is that Arctic peatlands could be at increased risk of fire, and this represents an enormous store of carbon that could aggravate global warming.

An study of Indonesian peatland fires from cleared rainforest found that a particularly bad fire year can contribute roughly the equivalent carbon emissions to 20 to 40 percent of global fossil fuel emissions. The potential is much greater in boreal forests which contain vastly more peat. 

Another aspect of this year's intense fires is that they're happening in heavily populated places like California and Greece which increases their impact. The intensity of these fires, said Flannigan, means that conventional firefighting methods can't control them.

"The bottom line here is that fire's not going to disappear and we have to learn to live with it," said Flannigan. 

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