A Year of Wildfires: Why Fires Are Spreading Across the Globe

As the Amazon continues to burn and news of more wildfires in Indonesia and the Arctic Circle emerges, Sophie Parsons takes a look back over the past year with hopes of better understanding how the climate crisis has directly impacted the increasing wildfires.

updated: 13.12.2019

In the past week, social media has been flooded with devastating images of blackened trees and raging fires; our newspapers headlined with news of catastrophe and calls for political action. As the fires continue to engulf the planet’s largest rainforest, spreading across the border from Brazil to Bolivia to destroy nearly a million hectares of the Bolivian Amazon, understanding the phenomenon of the wildfires sweeping across the globe is becoming increasingly more important.

In less than 12 months since California saw some of the ‘deadliest’ forest fires the state has ever experienced, reports of wildfires from all corners of the globe have been linked to the climate crisis and increasing temperatures. In the past two decades, 72,400 wildfires have resulted in an average of 7 million acres of U.S land being destroyed. According to the Global Forest Watch, there have been 24,178,545 fire alerts across the entire planet in the past year alone (27 Aug 2018 – 26 Aug 2019). However, with only around 15% of these fires resulting from natural causes, the links between the climate and these fires can seem dubious.

Perhaps, it is the combination of both the human and the natural to consider here, how our actions can directly and indirectly affect the natural cycles of the earth. Though the fires can result from careless behaviour of discarded barbecues and cigarettes, or from large scale deforestation for industry, the speed at which they spread is perhaps quickened by consequences of the climate crisis. Record temperatures have left the earth dry; an increasing vapour pressure deficit has led to less humidity in the air and an increased intensity to the sun’s light. As a result of this changing climate, drier conditions appear to be making the land more vulnerable to fires.

With wildfires spreading beyond that of rainforests and the tropics to the typically cooler climates of the UK and the Arctic, these disasters are no longer limited to extreme temperatures and exotic locations. This summer saw the Arctic suffering its worst wildfire season on record, with more than 100 fires having burned across Siberia, Alaska and Greenland. A spring heatwave caused fires to spread across the moors in West Yorkshire in the UK, the second wildfire to affect moorland in less than a year.

In the past 12 months, reported wildfires have devastated Greek Islands and precious rainforests, with eight large scale fires occurring in the past three months alone. As our awareness of the climate crisis increases and we begin to witness the destruction of the planet, understanding the past will hopefully better prepare us for the future.

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In the past twelve months…

July 2018

Saddleworth Moor, Manchester was started as a result of an arson attack and grew to engulf 1.5sq km of West Yorkshire, taking 200 firefighters four days to contain.

Wildfires in Athens, Greece tragically resulted in at least 74 fatalities, with the speed in which it spread having blocked many people off from escape routes and evacuations. Though wildfires are not uncommon in Greece, a significant lack of rain had resulted in extremely dry conditions, intensifying the fires.

November 2018

Perhaps one of the most devastating wildfires to occur in the past 12 months spread across California, with three large scale fires causing a displacement of over 150,000 people and claiming at least 84 lives.

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February 2019

A summer heatwave in the southern hemisphere sparked fires covering 2,300 hectares of land across the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand.

April 2019

An Easter heatwave across Europe ended with a large wildfire spreading across Ilkley Moor in West Yorkshire, covering 50 acres and requiring aid from 14 firefighter crews.

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June 2019

Spanning the past three months with little sign of diminishing, the Arctic fires in Siberia, Greenland and Alaska have now covered over 2.9 million hectares of land. The largest of these fires has been linked to lightening, in addition to Siberia having been reportedly 10C higher in June than the long-term average. It has been reported that these fires alone have emitted as much CO2 in one month as Sweden does in a year.

Heatwaves across Europe caused large scale wildfires in the Catalan province of Tarragona, Spain, resulting in residents being evacuated from homes and roads being blocked.

July 2019

Fires in central Portugal were linked to arson, though these dense forests in Portugal are often susceptible to wildfires. 

The town of Maui, Hawaii saw a spreading wildfire of 1,200 hectares causing thousands of people to be displaced.

August 2019

Around 9,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the tourist destination of Gran Canaria, Spain. Though there have been no fatalities, many homes were destroyed.

Mass wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon have begun to creep across the border to Bolivia. Satellite information has determined that there has been an 84% increase in the number of fires compared with the same period in 2018.

In the same week as the Amazon rainforest burned, Indonesia’s dry season caused the worst annual fire since 2015, in Sumatra, Kalimantan and the Riau islands. Wildfires are not uncommon on Indonesian islands, with large-scale deforestation causing the clearing of more than a million hectares of Indonesian rainforest every year.

10,297 fires are burnt across Central Africa, with the majority across Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unlike in the Amazon, these wildfires were in bush land and have been linked to agricultural intentions of burning off leftover grasses and scrub.

November – December 2019

Nearly 100 wildfires have burnt across New South Wales and Queensland in Australia, covering nearly 5.3 million acres of land and clouding Sydney in a toxic smog. Temperatures have hit record highs of above 40 degrees, and a continuing drought has left the ground dry and more susceptible to fire, with predictions for the wildfire season to continue well into 2020. Devastating footage of koala habitats being destroyed has left many fearing them ‘functionally extinct‘, with the WWF raising concerns that should habitat destruction continue, the species will be extinct by 2050.

The Future

So, what does this seemingly increasing quantity of wildfires mean for the future of our planet? The immediate effects of the fires, the smoke coated cities and destruction of habitats has already had devastating consequences, with the number of people being admitted to hospital with respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia having tripled in the weeks following the Amazon fires. Toxic clouds of carbon monoxide have spread across the region, with a new graphic from NASA depicting the change in the atmosphere. Whilst currently at too high an altitude to directly affect the air we breathe, the poisonous gas can and will directly impact air pollution and climate change. As for our ecosystem, fire historian Stephen J. Pyne predicts that though the forests themselves will adjust, the global warming will change the entire ecosystem, with new vegetation returning after the fires in a completely different form – a forced evolution on much of our biosphere.

Read in-depth about the devastating Amazon Rainforest fires and how best you can help.

Learn about the wildfires that spread through California in 2018.

Bring climate activism into your everyday life with these small steps.

Help tackle air pollution with these tips.