Southern Europe and British Columbia have been devastated by wildfires this summer. And they're not the only ones - it seems like much of the world is ablaze right now, and this could be the new normal...

Meanwhile in Portugal, 2,000 people were recently cut off by flames and smoke encircling the town of Macao. And earlier this summer, 64 people were killed by a blaze in the country.

Like Canada, southern Europe has seen a record heatwave this year, creating hot, dry conditions that saw Italy, France, Croatia, Spain and Greece all swept by wildfires. As a result, Europe has reportedly seen three times the average number of wildfires this summer.

But it's not just Canada and southern Europe that have been affected. In Siberia, wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes, and around 700 hectares of Armenian forest have also been destroyed by fire. Earlier this year, Chile saw wildfires that were unparalleled in the country's history, according to the President.

Even Greenland, not known for its hot dry conditions, suffered an unprecedented blaze this summer.

Central Portugal has been one of the areas hardest hit by fires this summer

The big picture

"A lot of these things are happening locally, but people don't always connect them to climate change," said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the US. "But there is a real climate change component to this and the risk is going up because of climate change."

With global temperatures rising, scientists say wildfires are likely to become increasingly frequent and widespread. "What's really happening is that there is extra heat available," Trenberth told DW. "That heat has to go somewhere and some of it goes into raising temperatures. But the first thing that happens is that it goes into drying - it dries out plants and increases the risk of wildfires."

The map above, compiling NASA satellite data on fires from the beginning of 2017 until mid-August makes it looks as if the whole world is on fire.  

So is 2017 a record year of wildfires?

Wildfire rages in British Colombia, on July 8. It has now been confirmed the state's biggest in more than 50 years

Tough competition

It certainly looks like it's been a big year for fires in southern Europe and North America. But Martin Wooster, professor of earth observation science at King's College London, says other parts of the world have seen worse in recent years.

"For example, this year, fires across Southeast Asia are extremely unlikely to be anything like as severe as they were in 2015," he told DW.

Two years ago, drought caused by El Nino created lethal conditions for Indonesian forests and peatlands that were already degraded by draining and logging. The smoldering peat - ancient, decayed vegetable matter condensed into a carbon-heavy fuel - kept fires burning for months on end.

"This led to huge fires, far bigger than any seen in Europe, and some of the worst air pollution ever experienced," Wooster said.

Satellite wildfire photo (NASA)

NASA imagery shows a large wildfire burning in Sweden in early August

Longer fire seasons - longer recovery

But there does appear to be a distinct trend for fire seasons to be longer and more harsh. "In the western United States, the general perception is that there is no wildfire season any more, but that it's continuous all year round," Trenberth told DW.

In many parts of the world, wildfires are part of a natural cycle. Savannahs, for example, are maintained by fire. Some trees not only survive fires, but need them to release their seeds. Human intervention can disrupt these cycles, the scientific discipline of fire ecology has found. Putting out small fires can allow flammable debris to accumulate until a colossal fire starts that cannot be controlled.

But global warming is resulting in hotter, drier conditions that mean such infernos are becoming more common, even with careful forest management. And the changed climatic conditions can mean forests take far longer to recover. Meanwhile, fires are also starting in habitats in areas like the tropics that have no natural fire ecology.

Frankreich Waldbrände (picture-alliance/MAXPPP/F. Fernandes)

A wildfire smolders near Nice in the south of France in July

Human fingerprints

Climate change isn't the only manmade factor. Fires can also be started by careless humans dropping cigarettes or letting campfires get out of control.

And in regions like the Amazon, where the annual fire season increased by 19 percent between 1979 and 2013, fire is deliberately used to clear forest to make way for agriculture. "Farmers light fires to clear an area and what happens in drought conditions is that these fires become wild because the vegetation is so dry, it gets out of control," Trenberth said.

And all this can have a feedback effect - more fires mean more carbon released into the atmosphere, which in turn drives climate change.

Wildfires rage through Southeast Europe Too close for comfort...

Smoke and flames rise from a fire in the Croatian village of Podstrana, near the Adriatic coastal town of Split, on July 18, 2017. In Croatia, the blazes have spread over several locations along the coast and onto the islands, engulfing pine forests and low shrubbery in extremely dry and windy weather.

Hope for the best... While there were no reports of casualties and the fires only reached a few homes, some people could only stand by and watch as the flames razed everything in their path, especially nature. Fires between the Croatian town of Omis and Split have reportedly destroyed 4,500 hectares of forest.

Desperate times... Forest fires are common in southern Europe each summer, and can sometimes be caused by reckless tourists. However, there have also been cases where speculators have deliberately set fire to properties seeking new land to build on. Croatian news media are already speculating about arson, as fires started in more than 20 sites in Croatia alone.

All hands on deck... Firefighters used aircraft to try to tackle the flames, which continued overnight in both Croatia and neighboring Montenegro. With fires raging on the mainland as well as on islands such as Pag and Vir, the military was also called in to help in both countries. Montenegro also requested NATO's assistance.

Situation mostly under control... Fires that have raged for days in neighboring Montenegro have been brought under control, with soldiers helping to put out blazes on the Lustica peninsula near the town of Tivat. Some remote areas of Montenegro continue to be affected.

Full picture of damage yet to emerge... More than 100 tourists had to be brought to safety in Montenegro alone, as wildfires came threatening close to human habitats. The full extent of the damage remains unknown, as there is still some work to do to stop the fires and prevent future blazes in coming days, as temperatures are expected to soar.

Large parts of southern Europe affected... Europe has been experiencing an unusual heatwave this summer, with temperatures approaching record levels in many places. Southern Italy had to deal with its own wildfires less than a week earlier. The blames consumed swathes of land in the provinces of Cosenza (pictured here) and Salerno as well as parts of Sicily. Portugal was also affected by wildfires a month ago.

DW recommends

  • Date 21.08.2017
  • Author Ruby Russell


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