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Wildfires Don’t Respect National Borders. Yet Global Cooperation Is Way Behind.

Scaling a fire prevention system to global levels could take decades, experts say. But what the world doesn’t have right now is time.

A wildfire.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As anyone on the East Coast of the United States can tell you: Fire season is raging in Canada.

Home to nearly 9 percent of the world’s forests, Canada is witnessing an explosive first act to its fire season that is darkening skies across North America. Since May, flames have burned Canadian land roughly the size of Maryland. Approximately four hundred wildfires are active from east to west and more than 26,000 people displaced, according to a Canadian senior official. The fallout has choked not only Toronto, but Washington, D.C., New York City, and much of the East Coast, which is engulfed in dangerous levels of smoke.

This ongoing disaster highlights a global problem: Wildfires don’t obey national borders, yet international cooperation is woefully behind when it comes to preventing fires.

That doesn’t mean nothing is being done. According to experts, Canada is actually among the most cooperative countries in the world when it comes to wildfires. Hundreds of firefighters from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa are already in Canada helping to quell the blazes. They’ll soon be joined by firefighters from Mexico too. But this fellowship only kicks in to suppress active ones, not to prevent them before they ignite.

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  • And once fires reach a certain potency, firefighters will be outgunned, with nothing to do except wait until the flames burn out on their own, explains Peter Moore, who is a consultant fire management specialist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

    “What we need to be looking at is collaboration and cooperation in analyzing what fires are doing and why they're doing it,” said Moore. “The Canadians will be in a very good position to do it, because of the way they approach things, the data they collect, and the research they’ve already done.

    The next stage of international cooperation needs to happen soon, experts warn. According to the UNEP, the world will experience 50% more wildfires by 2100. Yet governments are decades behind formalizing an international outfit to help understand the scope of this climate change-worsened problem. The world has yet to establish a universally applicable framework to not only combat present fires, but to understand and prepare for the increasingly-powerful fires that have yet to come.

    “We need a very, very intense interface between science and decision making,” said Johann G. Goldammer, who is the Director of the Global Fire Monitoring Center, which he founded in 1998. “It is high time now that the theme of fire and the global environment be addressed not only by national politics, but also by international politics.”

    The infrastructure required to strengthen fire prevention cooperation from country to country is a logistical nightmare: Its foundation requires financial, political, and organizational will across dozens of agencies and countless state actors, all of which face barriers in languages, cultural ideologies, and equipment compatibility.

    Scaling this fire prevention system to global levels could take decades, experts say. But what the world doesn’t have right now is time. As global temperatures increase, certain parts of the world, like Canada, will keep getting warmer and drier in the spring and summer months, leading to drought and intensifying the size and damage of wildfires. Fires also release a lot of carbon into the atmosphere and damage ecosystems’ abilities to store it over time, which compounds the effects of global warming. In recent years, the immense damage done by fires in Australia, California, Greece, Chile, Turkey, and elsewhere has touched this third rail far too many times.

    “When we have these increasing fire weather days, it reduces the amount of days that we have to safely do mitigation efforts — things like prescribed burns, particularly because it increases the chance of these fires burning out of control,” said Caitlyn Trudeau, who is a data analyst for Climate Central’s Climate Matters program. Without prescribed burns, forests get overcrowded and build up fuels, which increases the chance fires will be worse than ever when they do break out.

    The good news is that world leaders and experts have worked together to combat pollution before. In the 1980s, the United States and Canada passed laws to quell the prevalence of acid rain, which research had shown was a direct result of human activity. By 2020, the emissions that enabled acid rain in Canada and the U.S. had decreased by as much as 92 percent. The problem has virtually disappeared.

    In 2002, the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement was signed by ten countries across Southeast Asia to reduce air pollution caused by smog, smoke and other haze-like detritus in the region. It has enhanced ASEAN’s motivation for greater regional cooperation on environmental policies.

    Just this May, the International Wildland Fire Conference gathered in Portugal to draw up a first-of-its-kind fire governance framework. It proposes an integrated mechanism under the United Nations to implement a fire risk assessment, management, and evaluation program worldwide. Will it be officialized under the UN banner? That is still uncertain. For now, fires may continue to impact the world in ways that feel eerie, dystopian, and unprecedented.

    “We’re talking about, you know, millions and millions of people being impacted by fires that are far away from them. Fires that they’re not even able to see. And that’s really scary,” said Climate Central’s Trudeau on the fires the world has had in recent years. “The good thing is we know what’s happening, we know what’s causing it, and we know how to solve it.”

    Read more about the wildfire smoke engulfing the eastern United States:

    The Smoke Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better

    The East Coast’s Wildfire Smoke Is On Par With the West’s Worst Days

    How to Prepare for Wildfire Smoke, According to Doctors at Harvard

    Wildfire Smoke Is a Wheezy Throwback for New York City

    The East Coast Has Been Smokier Than the West Coast This Year


    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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