NEWS
12/27/2019 11:05 EST | Updated 12/27/2019 11:05 EST

2019 Has Been Especially Bad For Wildfires Across The Planet

Climate change is making them more frequent and intense.

Australia

Fires have been raging across the country, killing nine people since September, destroying about 1,000 homes and burning more than 4.86 million hectares (12 million acres).

WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images
A man walks on a farm as flames approach near the town of Taree, 346 kilometres north of Sydney, on Nov. 14.

As Australia experiences a heat wave — in December, it had the hottest day on record with an average maximum temperature across the country of 44.9 degrees Celsius (107.4 degrees Fahrenheit) — the country’s firefighters are struggling to bring the blazes under control.

Bushfires have always been a feature of Australian life, but this year’s fires are the most intense and destructive since 1974. 

Rick Rycroft/AP
Thick smoke from wildfires shrouds the Opera House in Sydney on Dec. 10. Hot, dry conditions brought an early start to the fire season.

The fires have sharpened calls in the country to take the climate crisis more seriously, but the government has refused to accept that climate change has played any role in the unfolding disaster. 

Mark Evans via Getty Images
A protester wearing a mask at a rally for climate action at Sydney Town Hall on Dec. 11.

California

The California wildfire season has once again been devastating, displacing thousands from their homes, burning more than 101,171 hectares (250,000 acres), and costing about $104 billion (US$80 billion) in damage and economic losses. The state saw planned electricity blackouts in an effort to prevent wildfires, leaving about three million people without power, some for almost a week.

APU GOMES via Getty Images
Firefighters battle a blaze in Brentwood, Calif., on Oct. 28. The wildfire forced widespread evacuations as the flames destroyed several homes in hillside communities.

The fires were less destructive than in the previous two years. In 2018, fires burned through 0.73 hectares (1.8 million acres) in the state and 0.53 hectares (1.3 million acres) the previous year.

Seven of California’s 10 most destructive fires have happened in the last four years.

Climate change plays an important role; warmer temperatures mean drier vegetation, which acts as perfect kindling for fires. Annual rains are coming later and later, while hot, dry winds have helped whip up fires.

Aging energy infrastructure has also been a factor. Utility company Pacific Gas and Electric, which filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, was found responsible for the deadly Camp Fire in 2018 that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 86 people.

Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A back fire set by firefighters in an effort to control the fire in Geyserville, Calif., on Oct. 26.

There are no simple solutions. Tackling the rising global greenhouse emissions causing the climate crisis would be a start. Updating energy infrastructure and implementing better adaptation strategies for communities in fire-prone areas are also important. And some people advocate prescribed burning, which has its roots in Indigenous practices, where small, controlled fires are lit to clear some of the vegetation that can lead to catastrophic wildfires. 

JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images
A photographer takes photos amid a shower of embers as wind and flames rip through the area during the Kincade Fire near Geyserville, Calif., on Oct. 24.

The Amazon

The Amazon saw more than 80,000 forest fires this year, an increase of 75 per cent from 2018. Many of these fires have been blamed on people and companies clearing land for industry and agriculture ― predominantly beef and soy farming. 

Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s far-right leader who has been working to open up the Amazon to corporate interests, responded to the fires with a flurry of baseless finger-pointing. With no evidence, he blamed non-governmental organizations and firefighters for lighting fires and actor and environmental campaigner Leonardo DiCaprio, who he claimed had financed the fires.

Bruno Kelly / Reuters
Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Brazil, on Sept. 10.

The Amazon, a huge carbon store, is a vital buffer for the world against climate change, and this year’s fires, accompanied by frighteningly high levels of deforestation, have been devastating to this important ecosystem. 

“We need a real commitment from Bolsonaro’s government to protect Brazil’s forests and their indigenous and traditional communities, who are the true guardians of the Amazon,” Christian Poirier, program director of U.S.-based non-profit Amazon Watch, told the BBC. “Bolsonaro has promised ‘zero tolerance’ for explosive deforestation and subsequent widespread arson; however, his policies and rhetoric have actually encouraged such crimes.”

NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images
View of fire from the BR163 highway, near Itaituba, Brazil, in the Amazon rainforest, on Sept. 10. 

In response to the destruction in the Amazon, policymakers in Los Angeles and New York City have proposed rules that would ban the cities from working with big food companies linked to deforestation and wildfires. 

Leo Correa/AP
A Brazilian soldier takes a quick rest before resuming firefighting at the Nova Fronteira region in Novo Progresso, Brazil, on Sept. 3. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sent the military to help extinguish some fires.

Russia

Hundreds of fires spread across Siberia this summer, following a particularly hot and dry period. Siberia is used to wildfires, but the scale of the 2019 blazes was unusual as was their proximity to cities such as Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, where air quality plummeted.

Many of the fires were in remote, hard to reach areas called “control zones,” where authorities are not obliged to fight fires as the cost of fighting them is predicted to be higher than the damage they cause.

Maria Khlystunova/Press Service of the Ministry of Forestry of the Krasnoyarsk Territory via AP
A fire in the Boguchansk district of the Krasnoyarsk region in Russia. Hundreds of Russian towns and cities were shrouded in heavy smoke from wildfires in Siberia and the Far East in July 2019.

Critics blamed the Russian government for not being prepared and for underfunding fire protection and firefighting efforts. A million people signed a petition demanding that the government act and, at the end of July, the Russian government declared a state of emergency in five regions in Siberia and brought in the military to tackle the fires. 

Environmental organizations say the consequences of these fires go far beyond Russia. “The situation with the forest fires in Siberia has long ceased to be a local problem and has turned into an ecological catastrophe on the scale of the entire country,” according to Greenpeace.

Toxic smoke from the wildfires spread out over the country, and it was estimated that the fires released 300,000 mega tonnes of carbon dioxide in July. The fires also produce “black carbon,” which settles on the Arctic ice and absorbs sunlight, exacerbating global warming.

Donat Sorokin/TASS via Getty Images
A forest fire is seen here in the Boguchany District of Russia in August. More than a million hectares of woodland were hit by wildfires in Russia's Krasnoyarsk Territory.

Indonesia

Forest fires burn in Indonesia every year, but dry weather in 2019 has made this year particularly destructive. As smoke billowed out over southeast Asia, schools were closed and air pollution put millions of people at risk, especially children.

MUHAMMAD A.F/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Motorcyclists ride on a road as haze from wildfires blankets the city in Palembang, Indonesia, on Oct. 14. According to the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics agency, air quality has dropped to dangerous levels.

The fires in Indonesia are often linked to slash-and-burn methods to clear forest for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the vegetable oil found in a huge range of consumer products from chocolate to shampoo.

The forest fires not only release carbon emissions but also strip back the habitat of the country’s endangered orangutans.

WAHYUDI/AFP via Getty Images
A firefighter battling a forest fire in Pekanbaru in October. Indonesia's fires have been an annual problem for decades, though this year's were particularly bad because of the dry weather.

The government has been promising to more strictly enforce rules on slash and burn since the devastating fires of 2015, when land around the size of the state of Maryland was destroyed. But the practice continues.

Afrianto Silalahi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A photographer takes photos of peatland fires in Pekanbaru on Oct. 6 in Indonesia. Slash-and-burn farming practices contributed to the worst blazes since 2015, sickening tens of thousands in Riau.

Lebanon

In October, Lebanon experienced its worst wildfires in decades, exacerbated by a heat wave coupled with strong winds. More than 100 fires burned about 3,700 acres of land and claimed at least one life. Riot police were sent to tackle the fires with water cannons. 

Hassan Ammar/AP
People inspect the remains of cars and shops that were burned in a wildfire in the near Beirut on Oct. 15. 

The country experienced a heat wave before the fires, but despite warnings, the government did not prepare properly for the risk of wildfires, according to some experts.

“We have a new record in the extent of burned areas and the number of trees,” George Mitri, director of the land and natural resources program at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera. “It’s absolutely catastrophic to our national biodiversity.”

Experts called for governments to seriously step up funding for fire management, especially as the country’s urbanization means more people are starting to live very close to fire-prone areas.

“This is not an isolated event,” Julien Jreissati, a campaigner at Greenpeace Lebanon, told The Ecologist, “as 2019 has been a year of unprecedented forest fires from Siberia to the Amazon, from the Canary Island to Indonesia, sending clear signals that our planet is burning and it is time to act like it.”

JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images
Fire takes out forests in the mountainous area that flanks the Damour river near the village of Meshref in Lebanon's Shouf mountains, southeast of the capital Beirut, on Oct. 15. The outbreak coincided with high temperatures and strong winds.

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