Around the world, forest fires play an important ecological role by activating seeds, cycling nutrients, and maintaining diversity. And indeed, many forests evolved with fire and are capable of regenerating naturally after an average small to medium-scale fire. Unfortunately, recent years have seen some of the most devastating wildfires in history, with many burning hot enough to destroy seeds and completely degrade land and soil. These extreme fires cause significant loss of life, leave severe environmental impacts, and destroy property and infrastructure.
So what makes them so uncontrollable?Often exceeding the capacity of our best fire suppression technologies, forest fires gobble up accumulated debris on the forest floor,whipping up violent winds and burning hot enough to create their own weather systems. When this happens, firefighters are forced to wait until they either run out of fuel and burn out or weather conditions moderate — whichever happens first.
In 2019, almost 10,000 square km of rainforest were burned in the Amazon. Often started by ranchers to clear land for agriculture (mostly, grazing cattle and growing soy), these fires devastate the ecosystem. Part of a disturbing deforestation trend in one of the most climatically important regions in the world, the intensive burning has sparked international condemnation.
The Amazon — otherwise known as the lungs of the earth — is a huge carbon store and a vital buffer against climate change. When the Amazon burns, it’s bad for everyone, but the fires especially risk the health and livelihoods of poor and indigenous populations.
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Despite strict Indonesian government regulations against illegal burning, 2018 saw an additional 500,000 hectares burned after more than 236,000 burned in 2015. And when high pressure systems returned with a vengeance in 2019, another 900,000 hectares of forest were lost.
In addition to harming Indonesians, these fires put the native Orangutan population at risk and affect neighboring countries like Malaysia, who have urgently called for better management of the situation. With the annual GHG emissions in Indonesia rising and affecting the livelihoods of many, it's important that we come together to help the local Indonesian communities reforest degraded land.
Australia, a “fire-formed continent,” is no stranger to wild bushfires that end lives and destroy property. An integral part of the landscape, major fires are not unusual. But in recent years, Australians have seen a trend of longer and more severe fire seasons than even they are used to.
This culminated in December 2019 with their hottest day on record: 107.9 degrees Fahrenheit, and unprecedented destruction as bushfires spread across every Australian state, killing over 1 billion animals and burning up nearly 6 million hectares of bush (as of January 2020). New South Wales, in particular, has seen unfathomable destruction, with the loss of 3.6 million hectares, 1,500 homes destroyed or damaged, and 24 people killed.
In 2017, British Columbia experienced unprecedented burning, prompting the displacement of 65,000 people and the longest Provincial State of Emergency in British Columbia’s history. The Hanceville Fire burned 240,000 ha of land, burning intensely
enough to reach a rank of 6 and create its own weather system. Due to this intensity, it is estimated that up to 30% of the forest would not have been able to return without help.
How did this happen? Over several years, diseases and insect infestations decimated enormous areas of the forest, providing the perfect conditions for a fire to take hold.
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Trees help clean the air we breathe, filter the water we drink, and provide habitat to over 80% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity. They also provide jobs to over 1.6 billion people, absorb harmful carbon from the atmosphere, and are key ingredients in 25% of all medicines.
These six pillars help to explain why we need trees:
Reforestation is essential in some landscapes after wildfires where the fire intensity burned off available seed supply within the soil, and/or where there are not enough healthy trees still growing and producing new seeds nearby. Furthermore, when planting doesn’t happen soon enough, invasive species can quickly establish dominance in newly cleared landscapes. This reduces biodiversity and increases the likelihood of future burns.
Climate change is held largely responsible for fires burning longer and more intensely than ever before, testing the ability of ecosystems to regenerate without human intervention. But by observing healthy ecosystems, we’re able to take action and lend a helping hand where it’s needed the most.
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