In 1968 an English psychedelic rock band calling themselves The Crazy World of Arthur Brown sang:
I am the god of hellfire and I bring you
Fire, I’ll take you to burn
Fire, I’ll take you to learn
I’ll see you burn
It could so easily be a theme song for now with wildfires burning in many places around the world.
We may think that because Australia stands out because of what we are hearing about right now that that is the only place. It is too easy to forget the major fires there have been in the USA and parts of the Amazon in South American countries, then Spain, Portugal, Greece and France. In fact, according to data gathered by the EU’s joint research centre (JRC), wildfires of various magnitudes burned more land in Europe in the first part of 2019 than during all of 2018. Their European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) monitored 1233 fires that burned 30 hectares or more, up until the end of April alone. That surpasses the 1192 fires that were recorded during 2018 and the ten year average of 115 for that time of the year. After a hot, dry summer in much of Western Europe in 2019, then the storms that will have felled trees and pushed vegetation closer together, a hot summer and a few accidents with fire may see those figures exceeded. It is not just the rest of the world, it is here too.
Below there is a fire map taken from NASA’s public website that shows fires burning during the period 26 December to 2 January. During that week, according to NASA, there were 155,905 burning worldwide. The map shows the location of actively burning fires around the world as they are collated by the day. They are based on observations from a large number of satellites. They use two system to observe wildfires. Firstly, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite; in which the colours are based on the number, but not size, of fires observed in an area of 1000 square kilometres. The lighter the pixilation, the higher the number of fires seen. That may be as many as 30 fires in that particular area on any given day. Orange pixels show up to 10 fires and red as few as a single fire per day.
There is also Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). Global Forest Watch uses VIIRS active fires data for the FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System) which identify global fire locations in near real time. Information is collected then processed using a fire detection algorithm to flag up active fires. Each dot on a map represents the centre of a 375 meter pixel that has been identified by the algorithm. VIIRS data has higher spatial resolution that MODIS which improves detection of smaller fires and presents a more reliable estimate of fire perimeters. It is also better calibrated for detection of fires at night. The satellites are now able to provide new data every ten minutes. The can also distinguish difference reasons for fires such as volcanic activity and other natural phenomena. However, once a fire is established it becomes part of the entire data. Using the present monitoring technology, since 2011 552,116 fires have been recorded.
On this planet somewhere a fire is always burning. Wildfires can start naturally by lightning, simply by heat and dryness stoked spontaneous combustion, rarely but not excluded is hot debris from volcanic activity and other natural phenomena. It can also be started accidentally, maliciously or intentionally without malign intent by people. People have used controlled fires to manage farmland and pasture and clear natural vegetation for cultivation for as long as organised agriculture has existed. What we call slash and burn agriculture was once probably the most common form of land clearance and was predominant until very recently in historic terms. However, fire produces large amounts of smoke pollution, also releases greenhouse gases, thus inadvertently cause degradation of ecosystems. At the same time, and this has been part of the natural function of regeneration fire has played, it clears away dead and dying undergrowth, which helps to restore ecosystems to good health. In many of those, especially woodlands and grasslands, plants co-evolved with fire and require naturally occurring periodic burning to reproduce. There are, for instance, many trees that only shed seed when burned. Our ancestors recognised this, therefore their slash and burn agriculture was never intended to clear land for permanent crops and pasture, but in rotation to allow for natural regeneration. As time progressed land was cleared and remained clear, now many forest areas actually owe their existence to the hand of human beings, thus have lost the natural defence systems against the vast extent of today’s wildfires.
When experts are looking at global patterns that appear in fire maps, over time some are the result of natural cycles of rainfall, drought or aridness, lightning and other inevitable natural events. There are, to use one example, naturally occurring fires many summers in Canadian boreal forests. In other parts of the world they the result of human activity; the intense burning of forest and savannah in the centre of South America from August to October is a result of mostly intentional and accidental fires in the Amazon Basin and the Cerrado grassland/savanna regions to the south. Across Africa there is an annual belt of extensive agricultural burning that sweeps from north to south as the dry season progresses. Agricultural burning occurs during late winter and early spring in Southeast Asia every year. Here in Europe heath fires and forest clearance have often been used for land clearance, still may be where people believe that is the only way to do it, irrespective of any recent environmental protection laws.
So, as moved by the images of disastrous fires in Australia right now as we may be, we have to look to our own ‘back yards’ as well. Europa United is Ireland based; therefore let us look at the scale of the fires burning right now in parts of Australia. It would be a large part of the Republic, more or less half of the entire island. For many of us the concept of an area of wildfire that vast seems impossible, but now we know it is not.
Therefore, when we look around ourselves we must do so aware of what is immediately around us. I, for instance, live on the edge of a forest, small in global terms, but one that is increasingly looking vulnerable. Trees have been planted rather than this being natural boreal forest. Until phylloxera caused the ‘Great French Wine Blight’ in the 1860s that destroyed many major grape growing areas, this was all vines, indeed the name on the map still calls it Vieilles Vignes, a name normally associated with vines that are notably old, thus produce a better quality wine. In fact it is only the surviving name of a wine growing area that had existed for hundreds of years that is now completely lost. Trees were planted on very thin soil, mainly tall spindly oaks, hornbeam and pine. Heavy winds topple them, insects bore tunnels through them making them far more volatile when they dry out and undergrowth is badly if ever managed. Recent droughts and storms with extraordinarily high winds have blown shallow rooted and already fragile trees down; undergrowth is covered and often blown together in large clumps. Locally we believe it a question of time until there is a fire.
The picture above is of a typical area of dry undergrowth and fallen wood on the edge of the forest taken at dawn on 2 January. It is typical of this area, but many other places worldwide.
What we should be doing?
Some people are clearing their parts of the forest, felling the weakest trees, but much of the land belongs to absentee owners who have long since given up good management. People still light fires in the forest, including during the hottest, driest spells, so it is easy to see how accidents might happen. Of course, with increased storm activity that could be any time and purely accidental. So, just looking at my own ‘back yard’ it is not too difficult to imagine the threat that exists. The question now is what to do, how to do it and who should do whatever it requires around the world. If anything, Australia serves us as a warning about unpreparedness and political inaction until even they cannot do anything that should have been done long ago and are now seeking excuses and scapegoats. In Europe we must prepare, but actively, instead of gasping at wildfires everywhere else but where we see it in the news. Today it may be any of us forced to fight fires in a vain attempt to save our homes and possessions.
The technology exists, media is informing us almost by the hour, yet it is striking that recent media reporting on wildfires in the USA and now Australia have often presented the control and prevention of fires as inadequate. Whilst engrossed in the details of fire damage, loss of life and heart-breaking numbers of animals dying at present, we tend to read past what we are sometimes told about reduced funding for emergency services that have depleted fire and rescue services, that other services such as military personnel are very slow to be put in place to help emergency services and, above all else, politicians are more or less ignoring what is happening until they have no choice but to act and even then too late in some cases. Meanwhile, in the normally ‘safe’ confines of cities the air pollution is causing serious problems and there is not absolute assurance that fires will never spread into some of them, as we are seeing with Sydney and Victoria in Australia right now. In Europe there are many cities that are proud of the forestland that extends well into them, regarded as something that now helps keep air pollution levels lower. With global warming trends and the growing number of droughts, it is not inconceivable our forests will begin to burn and, in the course of doing so, begin to threaten our cities. Rather than wait for the first fires, we should be preparing now.