Updated Feb 23, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Wildfire risk will jump 30% by 2050, UN says

A firefighter from San Diego, saves an American flag as flames consume a home during the Dixie fire in Greenville, California on August 4, 2021.
A firefighter from San Diego saves an American flag as flames envelop a home in Greenville, Calif., in August during the Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire recorded in the state. Photo: Josh Edelso/AFP via Getty Images

Destructive wildfires like the ones that have ravaged the U.S. West Coast in the past couple years are set to become 50% more common by the end of this century, the UN warns in a new report.

Driving the news: Global warming and land-use change would make wildfires more frequent and intense, with a 14% increase by 2030 and a 30% rise by 2050 projected, according to the study published Wednesday by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the environmental nonprofit GRID-Arendal.

  • "From Australia to Canada, the United States to China, across Europe and the Amazon, wildfires are wreaking havoc on the environment, wildlife, human health and infrastructure," notes the report, which involved more than 50 international researchers.
'"The 2020 Siberian heatwave that was associated with extensive burning in the Arctic Circle was the first event shown to be almost impossible without climate change, with the likelihood of this happening being only once in 80,000 years without anthropogenic emissions, and climate change increasing the chances of prolonged heat by a factor of at least 600."
ā€” UN study

Yes, but: While the "situation is certainly extreme, it is not yet hopeless," adds the report, published ahead of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, that starts next Monday.

What they found: Direct responses to wildfires typically receive over 50% of funding, while planning and prevention get less than 1%, per the research.

  • The report advises governments to adopt a new "Fire Ready Formula" that would allocate 32% to prevention, 13% to preparedness, 34% to response and up to 20% to recovery.

State of play: "Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place," UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said in an emailed statement.

  • "Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported," Anderson added.
  • "We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change."

What they're saying: "You have a situation where wildfires are burning hotter and they're burning longer," study co-author Hugh Safford told Axios. "Now, at the same time, they're starting to occur due to flare up in unexpected places."

  • Professor Guillermo Rein, an Imperial College London professor who was not involved in the study, told the Guardian a particularly important aspect of it was "the emphasis on extreme wildfires and the recommendation for [a] move from reaction to prevention and preparedness."

The bottom line: "Regardless of mitigation ... we must learn to live with fire," per the report. "We must learn to better manage and mitigate the risk of wildfires to human health and livelihoods, biodiversity, and the global climate."

Go deeper: Study: Climate change main cause of wildfire weather in U.S. West

Andrew Freedman contributed reporting.

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