More, bigger, hotter, wildfires – the “New Normal”
More frequent, intense and longer burning wildfires are ravaging the most diverse regions of our planet, most of them aggravated by historically high temperatures and drier conditions. In the past few months alone.”
In June, wildfires raced across the Garden Route along South Africa’s southern coast in Knysna, forced about 10,000 people from their homes and inflicted severe damage to indigenous forests, farmlands, houses, hotels and B&Bs in one of the country’s most popular tourism destinations.
Amid soaring temperatures in mid-June, a series of four initial wildfires erupted across central Portugal within minutes of each other, resulting in at least 64 deaths, scores of injuries and widespread damage to buildings and vegetation.
In the western US between January and May, 57,000 fires, the most since 2000, burned 1 million hectares, the second most on record, according to the National Centres for Environmental Information. In July, nearly 8,000 people were forced from their homes in California, while fires caused destruction in the US states of Arizona, Oregon and Nevada and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
In February, Chile experienced its worst natural disaster as wildfires destroyed 160,000 hectares of forest in the country’s drought-stricken southern and central regions.
Devastating fires such as these are not entirely unexpected. Global warming and climate change, as climate scientists have been warning for years, is bringing with it changing levels of moisture and precipitation that are making wet areas wetter and dry areas drier.
According to says Chris de Bruno Austin, CEO of Working on Fire International, “in many quarters, more frequent and intense wildfires in drier, hotter areas are being spoken of as the new normal.
“As the world warms, we can expect more wildfires,” says the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US. Wildfire seasons will also become longer and conflagrations will become more severe. In the US, for example, wildfires in the western states have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s, occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long as in previous periods.
The United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) in South Africa urges a major departure from the traditional response of focusing only on fire suppression. What has now become imperative, explains the UNDP, is the adoption of “effectively coordinated, sustained wildfire management to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fires due to climate change.”
The best way of doing this, explains the UNDP, is through what is known as Integrated Fire Management (IFM) – a term and concept that a South African-based company, Kishugu, under the brand Working on Fire (WOF), developed and commercialised. Kishugu, through WOF has implemented IFM on five continents through its Working on Fire International operations in Chile, Brazil, Australia, Africa and Indonesia.
“IFM is critical to realise a balanced, workable, and sustainable approach to manage wildfires with minimum harm to people and the environment,” says the UNDP.
“Wild fire can never be totally prevented, but you can implement IFM practices to reduce the damage that unwanted wildfire causes. He said there was no doubt that we could expect more unwanted wildfire more often. The best intervention is IFM.”
“IFM involves integration and coordination of a comprehensive range of initiatives, activities, detection and actions, explains Chris.
He says IFM includes fire awareness and prevention programmes, prescribed burning, risk mapping, hazard identification, resource sharing and coordination, fire detection, fire suppression, fire damage rehabilitation and research at local, provincial and national level. The aim is to create a sustainable and well-balanced environment.”
Kishugu defines the essential components of IFM as:
- Reduction: mitigating and managing the start and spread of fires.
- Response: coordinated actions to bring the correct resources with accurate information to an unwanted fire without delay.
- Readiness: activities developed to mitigate and manage the start and spread of fires.
- Recovery: Rehabilitation of the burn areas. Immediate dangers include soil erosion and longer-term damage by invasion of exotic and invasive plant species. In commercial areas there can be a need to remove burnt materials and re-plant commercial crops and trees.
IFM, says Chris, can be adapted to suit the requirements of organisations, ranging from national, regional and local governments to fire protection associations, large-scale commercial forestry operations and various land users. It can also be adapted to meet country-specific legislative requirements.