Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Israeli firefighters extinguish a fire near Shoresh, outside Jerusalem, August 3, 2021.

Climate change and changes in land use are expected to exacerbate the phenomenon of extreme forest fires in the coming years. By 2030, the number of wildfires in the world is expected to increase by about 14%, by 2050 by about 30%, and no less than by 50% at the end of the century, according to an expert report from the UN Environment Program that will be presented at the UN General Assembly conference on environmental issues to be held in Nairobi at the end of the month.

The report also shows that even the Arctic regions will not be immune, and even there a significant increase in the number of forest fires is expected.

Prof. Leah Wittenberg / Gender Equity Unit University of Haifa

“One of the team’s important recommendations, which is certainly true of Israel as well, is aimed at a significant change in the allocation of resources and an improvement in the readiness to deal with fire prevention,” said Prof. Leah Wittenberg, Head of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Haifa and the Israeli member of the team of authors of the report.

The authors propose that governments around the world adopt a new “two-thirds-third” readiness formula, whereby two-thirds of the resources should be invested in planning, prevention, preparedness, and restoration of forests and ecosystems, while only one-third of the resources should go to fighting fires.

The report, titled Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, points out that the danger of escalation of wildfires threatens almost every region of the earth, including in the northern and arctic regions that have so far suffered almost no wildfires.

“The reality is that wherever there are trees, fires are expected,” said Prof. Wittenberg.

According to the researchers, climate change, global warming, and extreme wildfires have a mutual effect: fires become more frequent and severe due to lack of rainfall and the increase in drought years; decrease in humidity; recurrence of heat waves; and strong wind systems during fire season.

At the same time, major fires are destroying sensitive and high-carbon ecosystems, exacerbating global warming.

In order to prevent extreme fires, the authors call for data integration and monitoring, along with local knowledge and increased local and international collaborations.

“We’re basically telling governments all over the world that they’re putting money in the wrong place,” said Prof. Wittenberg. “There is no doubt that the firefighters who fight on the front lines in front of the fire must be provided with the best means to succeed in their mission. However, if a significant portion of the resources is invested in preventing fires, we can also help carry out their work more efficiently and safely.”

The researchers further note that the fires are disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest countries and are preventing them from progressing towards the UN’s sustainable development goals. According to them, more serious attention must be given to environmental and health damage among the inhabitants of the poor countries affected by fires.

More effective dealing with the phenomenon of fires requires an understanding of fire behavior, developing an adaptive and effective interface that requires a combination of scientific knowledge and policies, and appropriate regulation and incentives for proper management of open spaces.

The report concludes with a call for the adoption of international standards for maintaining the safety and health of firefighters and minimizing the risks – during and after firefighting. These standards include raising awareness of the dangers of smoke inhalation, dealing with life-threatening events, and providing firefighters with access to proper nutrition, rest, and satisfying recovery times between shifts.

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