The story behind the growing threat to our forests
Wildfires are a common natural occurrence. Normally, wildfires remove the layer of dead plants and provide open habitats for plants and animals that are dependent on sunlight to evolve. Some plant species depend on the heat produced by wildfires to propagate, and wildfires also help to regulate pests and disease.
But if wildfires are so beneficial, why are we trying to fight them?
Mostly because too much of anything, regardless of how beneficial, can become detrimental. In the year 2020 alone, the number of fires across the globe increased by 13% in comparison to the year before. In 2021, approximately 325.000 hectares were burned between 22 July and 30 September alone.
So, while wildfires can be natural and necessary, the intensity and frequency with which they happen now is overwhelming and carries many negative consequences. Long-lasting fires prevent plant species regeneration, destroy habitats and entire ecosystems, increase the overall temperature of the planet, lead to human health complications (due to smoke inhalation) and can be deadly when they occur near populated areas.
In this article we look at what wildfires are and how they come to be. What are some of the most at-risk areas and what can we do about it?
What are Wildfires?
Generally, when we speak of wildfires, the first common cause that comes to people’s minds is global warming. While this is not an incorrect answer, it tends to disregard a more immediate cause – corporate greed and growth. The term “wildfires” is used interchangeably with “wildland fires”, “forest fires”, and “bushfires”.
But how are corporate greed and wildfires connected?
First, let us look at what wildfires are and how they come to be.
Wildfires are uncontrolled fires occurring in wildland vegetation, commonly in rural areas. They are not limited to one specific type of ecosystem – they can burn in forests, grasslands, and savannas etc.
There are certain conditions that need to be “fulfilled” for a wildfire to occur: ignition, continuous fuel, drought, and convenient weather conditions. Weather conditions refer to heat waves, wind speed, precipitation, temperature etc., while fuel refers to dead/dried fauna.
Fast Food, Fast Fashion, and Wildfires?
Notwithstanding the long-term effects of climate change, one of the most devastating direct consequences of human activity on wildfires is human-induced drought.
Human-induced drought is caused by intense human activities, some of the most notable being deforestation, agriculture/cattle raising, and poor water management.
Currently, forests cover 31% of the land area of our planet but this is rapidly decreasing. For example, the area formed by Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil has seen a total loss of over 5.5 million hectares per year during the period 2000 to 2015. Deforestation also increases the chances of poor weather conditions. In the Amazon Forest, deforestation has accentuated the intensity of the dry seasons, especially in the south-western area, which prolongs the duration of wildfires.
Approximately 17% of beef and 20% of soy exports to the European Union are associated with illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Furthermore, fast food chains, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, are heavily responsible for deforestation due to their cooperation with businesses in the Amazon.
Many other companies are also responsible for the current state of our forests. For example, Cargill is an agricultural multinational which exports soy from Brazil to the United Kingdom as animal food. Cargill supplies soy from farms which engage in deforestation. According to The Chocolate Scorecard, many other international giants which are praised for their practices – such as Unilever and Starbucks, are either doing poorly in the area of deforestation (among others) or have completely refused to provide any insights into their practices.
We have all heard of fast fashion. Many of your favorite clothing brands fall into this category – Bershka, Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Esprit, Primark, Fashion Nova and so on. Aside from polluting and breaching labor standards, fast fashion brands are also known for poorly managing water resources.
Fast fashion brands primarily use cotton which requires a considerable amount of water to produce. They usually employ tactics of diverting water to farmland in order to supply the necessary amount of irrigation, thus causing severe drought in other areas Some of the most notable examples of these practices are the Murray-Darling basin in Australia and the Rio Grande (Mexico – USA).
You’ve seen it, we’ve seen it – areas most prone to wildfires
Some of the most wildfire-prone areas are California, Australia, and Lebanon. Bear in mind that these are not the only areas affected by wildfires, but the areas we selected for the purpose of this article.
California is the most wildfire-prone state in the United States and lost 1.6 million acres to wildfires in 2018. In 2022, this damage increased to 2.23 million acres, representing approximately 30% of the total acres lost to wildfires. In addition, an estimated total of two million households were found to be at risk of wildfires.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia was struck with an additional plague – bushfires. The summer of 2019 in Australia is now known as the “Black Summer” because the bushfires exceeded the damage caused by any other wildfire season – 5.68 million hectares burnt in New South Wales, 2.04 million hectares in Western Australia, and 1.58 million hectares in Victoria. An estimated three billion native animals have been lost to the fires, which has pushed some of the already endangered species one step closer to extinction and caused considerable damage to entire ecosystems.
The year 2020 has been particularly merciless to Lebanon as well. This wildfire season was the worst that Lebanon had ever seen, with flames igniting at over 2000m altitude and burning a total area of 7132 hectares. Although it might not seem as much as California or Australia, Lebanon’s loss needs to be put into perspective. The yearly average of burnt areas in Lebanon used to be one thousand hectares, meaning the wildfires took away seven times the yearly average in one season.
What is there to do?
Does this mean we need to stop eating and wearing clothes to stop deforestation, to avoid wildfires, or to eventually fight our climate crisis? The obvious answer is no.
Products nowadays can bear specific certifications; you simply need to learn what they mean. Look for products with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification which ensures that the products are sourced from responsibly managed forests. The Rainforest Alliance Certification seal ensures that the product was created without breaching any of the three pillars of social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
Other additional certifications you might want to look for on your products are Fair Trade Certified, Fairtrade International, and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. As for clothing, you can always check the Good on You app to see recent evaluations of brand commitments.
And it does not have to stop there. Hold large companies accountable and demand change! Help us to support communities and activists who are raising awareness and putting their lives at risk to fight off wildfires!
Wildfires are a necessary “evil”. They are a natural step in ecological regeneration and advancement. However, human activities have destroyed this balance and ignoring actions which lead to the loss of billions of animals, the alarming destruction of habitat and nature, and the loss of human lives, constitutes a grave threat to our future and the entire planet as we know it.
If you want to know more about the daily struggles of fighting wildfires and what communities are doing to prevent their spread, there are numerous volunteer associations that you can support.
If you are interested in keeping up with the Californian efforts, you can follow the California State Firefighters’ Association here: https://www.instagram.com/csfafire/. Australia has its own volunteer association called the Country Fire Authority and you can find them here: https://www.facebook.com/cfavic/.
Lastly, we are currently working with the Civil Defense volunteer community in Lebanon, and you can follow more of their work here: https://www.instagram.com/ayvazoskii/. You can also read more about Team 7’s struggles in fighting wildfires on our website: https://thehaguepeace.org/site/project/lebanon-firefighting-campaign/.
Written by Iulia Manole
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