Climate change is making forest fires around the world bigger and more intense, increasing the threat to people and the environment and costing countries millions in damage and firefighting expenses, the United Nations reports.
With estimates of firefighting costs ranging from $450 million to $900 million per fire season, some countries — such as Canada — may no longer be able to afford to fight fires with the vigor that they currently do, cautioned the report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
In a global assessment of forest fires, the Rome-based agency found that 865 million acres of vegetation were affected by fires in 2000 alone — most of it in sub-Saharan Africa.
The report noted that not all forest fires are bad and that in some areas, ecosystems need fire for plant regeneration. Fire is also an important and widely used tool in agriculture. But overall, the report said, forest fires caused immense damage in human, environmental and economic costs — and are expected to increase in size and intensity alongside global warming.
The report urged countries to invest more in fire preparedness and prevention, noting that people are the main causes of fires and need to be better educated about preventing them.
The report stressed that the data was incomplete since many regions don't record the extent of fires because it costs too much. Data from Southeast Asia, for example — where forest fires in recent years have raised international concern — was particularly scant. But FAO said the report represented the best assessment of the global fire situation to date.
North American researchers reported that the incidence and severity of fires "will increase dramatically" with global warming.
In the most recent years for which figures are available, the United States recorded the most severe series of fire seasons since it started collecting statistics, with more than 7 million acres burned in 2004. Initial figures indicate that 8.6 million acres were burned in 2005.
Mediterranean countries also said that warmer temperatures and reduced rainfall in summer — both associated with climate change — would increase the risk of fires in the region and beyond. That concern was echoed by Caribbean countries, which noted an increase in fires with the El Nino weather phenomenon.