Dec 29, 2020 - Science

2020 was an extraordinary year for fires. Expect more like it.

 A firefighter tries to put out the wildfire on August 19, 2020 in San Mateo, California.
A firefighter at a wildfire in San Mateo, California, Aug. 19. Nearly 4.2 million acres has burned in the state this year — the most on record, per Cal Fire. Wildfires have killed 31 people and razed over 10,400 structures in the state in 2020. Photo: Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images

2020 has been an extraordinary year for wildfires on the U.S. West Coast and around the world, but you should expect more of the same this decade and in years to come.

For the record: That's the assessment of University of California, Los Angeles, climate scientist Daniel Swain, who says we need to learn to live with fire better by embracing good management practices, including traditional indigenous management.

"2020 seemed like a very extreme year and, indeed, it was from a fire perspective relative to historical fire patterns in a lot of these regions. But I suspect that 2020 in retrospect will not have been very extraordinary when we look at fire conditions over the next 20 or 30 years to come."
— Swain

Snapshot: 57,480 wildfires have burned nearly 10.4 million acres across the U.S. this year, National Interagency Fire Center data published Monday shows.

  • The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) 2020 report shows wildfires in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state were "tens to hundreds of times higher than the 2003–2019 average for the country as a whole and for affected states."
  • The toll from the fires is "188 lives lost and $46.6 billion dollars and counting," Climate Central notes.

In Australia, the "black summer" bushfires of 2019-2020 killed 33 people and impacted 3 billion animals as flames destroyed some 59 million acres.

In Brazil's Amazon rainforest, wildfires rose 13% in the first nine months of 2020 and satellites detected a 61% increase in September compared to 2019, as deforestation reached a 12-year high amid drought conditions.

In the Arctic, fires "released a record amount of carbon dioxide this year, increasing by more than a third on last year to 244 megatonnes," per CAMS.

Driving the news: A warming climate is amplifying fire risk in places where this was "pretty high to begin with — that’s certainly the case in Australia and California," Swain notes. The warming is drying increasing amounts of moisture out of the soil, consequently, plants.

  • "It has gotten a lot hotter, and in both Australia, California, the Amazon and the Arctic in 2020 we saw all-time high record temperatures during the peak of fire season," Swain said.
  • "Climate change is shifting the climate to an even greater degree in some places that historically were somewhat immune from fire because they were either too cold or too moist. Increasingly, that's no longer the case."

Yes, but: Not every year is expected to be as bad as this year, but on average, more wildfires are expected due to Earth's warming, per Swain.

  • "Do I think that we might see years like this several times per decade, in just 20 years? Unfortunately, yes," he said.

Be smart: Climate change is a global problem that no nation can fix alone, but the wildfire crisis can be addressed locally if people learn to live with fires by embracing managed fire, such as traditional indigenous practices, Swain said.

  • Another important factor is designing buildings to be more fire resilient, with evacuation egress, or having essentially buffer zones, public parks, open spaces or irrigated spaces that help slow down an oncoming fire.

The bottom line: Per Swain, "The explosion in fire catastrophes that we've seen in recent years is not inevitable."

In photos: 2020 fires around the world
 A kangaroo jumps in a field amidst smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma on January 4
Kangaroos jumps in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma, New South Wales, Australia on Jan. 4, 2020. Scientists at the World Weather Attribution group found human-caused climate change helped fuel the extreme weather conditions Australia's 2019-2020 bushfires. Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images
Smoke from a wildfire billows behind houses in Biguglia, on the French Mediterranean Island of Corsica
Smoke from a wildfire billows behind houses in Biguglia, on the French Mediterranean Island of Corsica, as the island is hit by strong winds from storm Ciara, Feb. 11, 2020. Photo: Pascal Pochard-Casabianca/AFP via Getty Images
A long-exposure photograph shows a Forest fire at Rumbai Pesisir village in Riau Province, Indonesia
A forest fire in Riau Province, Indonesia. The occurrence of La Niña has seen fewer fires this year in the country in 2020 than the El Niño year of 2019. Swain notes historically, this would cause a relatively cool year globally. Yet 2020 will globally either be "the record warmest year in well over a century or the second-warmest year." Photo: Afrianto Silalahi/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Firefighters put out hotspots of the Avila Fire on the on-ramp to Highway 101 in Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo County, California, June 15.
Firefighters put out hotspots of the Avila Fire on the on-ramp to Highway 101 in Pismo Beach, Calif., June 15. Photo: Nic Coury/AFP via Getty Images
A Cal Fire aircraft drops fire retardant over the Hog Fire, near Susanville, California, on July 21.
A Cal Fire aircraft drops fire retardant over the Hog Fire, near Susanville, Calif., on July 21. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
A resident hoses down a burning bicycle and tree as flames from the Hennessey approach a property in the Spanish Flat area of Napa, California on Aug. 18.
A resident hoses down a burning bicycle and tree as flames from the Hennessey Fire approach a property in the Spanish Flat area of Napa, Calif., Aug. 18. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
Greenpeace and local activists extinguish a peat fire in a Suzunsky forest next to the village of Shipunovo, 170 kms south from Siberian city of Novosibirsk on September 11
Greenpeace and local activists extinguish a peat fire in a Suzunsky forest next to the village of Shipunovo, south of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk on Sept. 11, 2020. Peatland fires represent an additional threat to the climate because peat, when burning, releases a great deal of carbon dioxide. Photo: Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images
 Cars drive on I-5 in front of a hazy Seattle skyline due to wildfire smoke on September 11, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.
Cars drive on I-5 in front of a hazy skyline caused by wildfire smoke in Seattle on Sept. 11. The American West endured some of the world's worst air quality due to fires in September. Photo: Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images
Marcelino Maceda looks for items in the remains of his mobile home after a wildfire swept through the R.V. park destroying multiple homes in Estacada, Oregon September 12
Marcelino Maceda looks for items in the remains of his mobile home after a wildfire swept through, destroying multiple homes in Estacada, Ore., Sept. 12. Smoke from the fires ravaging the U.S. West was observed over the U.K. and other parts of Europe this month. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
 Flames come close to houses during the Blue Ridge Fire on October 27, 2020 in Chino Hills, California.
Flames come close to houses during the Blue Ridge Fire on Oct. 27, 2020 in Chino Hills, Calif. Winds of over 90 miles per hour drove this wildfire and the Silverado Fire across thousands of acres, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and gravely injuring two firefighters. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images
Fires continue to burn on November 30, 2020 on Fraser Island, Australia.
Bushfires that began mid-October continue to burn on Nov. 30, 2020 on Fraser Island, Australia. Photo: Queensland Fire and Emergency Services via Getty Images
Los Angeles County Fire Dept. firefighters put out a hot spot in the Durfee Fire that spread to a homeless encampment in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in South El Monte, on Tuesday, Dec. 8
Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighters put out a hot spot in the Durfee Fire that spread to a homeless encampment in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in South El Monte, on Dec. 8, 2020. The fire was held to two acres despite high temperatures and wind. Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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