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The World’s Wildfire Models Are Getting Torched

“We’re in a downward spiral in Dante’s circle of hell.”

A forest fire.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Three weeks after wildfire smoke wafted over the Eastern United States, the smoke is back, blanketing the Midwest in a toxic haze. The proximate cause is simple: Canada is still burning at an unprecedented rate.

Over 450 fires are raging across the country, with half of them categorically out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center. Canada’s fire season has already become the country’s worst in recorded history.

It’s also an example of a larger trend: Fires worldwide are becoming exponentially larger and more destructive. This has led experts to a harrowing conclusion: The world’s “fire regimes” (i.e the long-term trends and behavior of fire) may potentially become so powerful, so destructive, and so frequent that fire experts can no longer predict their behavior based on current models.

“Some people like to say this is the new normal. I really do not like that term. Normal suggests a steady state. We’re not in a steady state. We’re in a downward spiral in Dante’s circle of hell,” Michael Flannigan, a lead fire researcher at Thompson Rivers University, told me.

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  • Flannigan has researched fires for over four decades. During that time, he found that fire’s overall behavior would shift toward more destructive levels, thanks to climate change, by mid-century. But what he and his colleagues fear now, however, is that these end-of-century-levels are already here.

    Today, fires like those in Canada, are orders of magnitude bigger, far more frequent, earlier in the year, and far more damaging than in the 1980s and ‘90s. (It’s worth pointing out, though, that it isn’t clear whether the Canadian fire are connected to climate change.) And once fires decimate an ecosystem, that area can’t store as much carbon, letting more of it linger in the atmosphere, compounding the effects of global warming. In recent years, the immense damage done by fires in Australia, Greece, Chile, Turkey, and elsewhere has touched this third rail far too many times.

    How did we get here, and what’s the fix?

    One solution might be better fire management, which studies have shown return $6 for every dollar a government spends on it.

    Yet over the past few decades, governments have done the opposite, slowly reducing forest management and fire prevention measures, which often involve controlled burns, opting instead to invest in active fire suppression. At the same time, towns and cities have expanded into fire-prone areas in developed countries like the United States and Canada. This combination has proved catastrophic for places like Paradise, California, in 2018.

    “[In Paradise,] there was almost exactly the same fire in 1965, but nobody was hurt because there was nobody there. Fast forward to 2018, and nearly the whole town burned down under virtually the same weather and fuel conditions,” Peter Moore, a consulting fire management specialist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, told me.

    In fire-prone countries such as the United States, fire economics are outdated and outgunned. The amount the U.S. Forest Service spends on fire suppression leapt from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent in recent years. U.S. National Interagency Fire Center estimates that fire suppression efforts cost all federal agencies around $4.4 billion in 2021.

    Fire experts suggest investing in preventative measures, like controlled burns that clear out kindling on forest floors or banning people from even entering forests during strong fire weather days, as Canada is doing now..

    FAO’s Moore described the potential benefits of reestablishing traditional fire knowledge as one viable approach to managing fire-prone landscapes, as has been done in Ghana and Australia.

    But what if the world can’t nail down fire management? Experts say: Look for more extremes ahead.

    “It’s like drug resistant bacteria,” Stephen Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University, told me. “We got rid of all the easy ones, and the ones that are left out or the ones that are beyond our ability to control.”

    Read more about the wildfire smoke:

    What the Smoke Has in Store

    How to Stay Safe from the Wildfire Smoke Indoors

    Why Are the Canadian Wildfires So Bad This Year?

    Kelly Kimball profile image

    Kelly Kimball

    Kelly Kimball is a bilingual journalist and photographer based in New York City by way of Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area, and Santiago, Chile. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, the San Francisco Chronicle, and DCist. Read More

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