Disasters Explained: Wildfires

Wildfires burn millions of acres of land every year globally. Find out more about what they are, how they occur and facts about the 2020 Australia bushfires.

Wildfires are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as natural disasters.

However, only 10-15% of them happen on their own in nature.

Most wildfires are caused by humans, and the most common causes are unattended camp and debris fires, discarded cigarettes, and arson. (source: National Geographic).

Find out more about wildfires, their link with climate change, where they occur and more.

What is a wildfire?

A wildfire, wildland fire or rural fire is an uncontrolled fire in an area of vegetation happening in rural areas.

Wildfires can rapidly burn millions of acres of land and can destroy everything—trees, homes, animals and humans in their paths. Families and whole communities that live in rural, wildfire-prone areas are in danger of losing their homes and having to flee for their own safety. Wildfires also have major health hazards, especially for people with existing breathing problems.

Breathing fire smoke can cause respiratory issues and coughing, wheezing and bronchitis. Another threat is carbon monoxide (CO). Inhaling CO reduces oxygen delivery to the body’s organs and tissues and can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness and even premature death.

Source: American Lung Association

A wildfire close to a road

Does climate change cause more wildfires?

A firefighter in a forest fire

Climate change increases the occurrence and severity of wildfires.

Hotter weather, a result of climate change, makes forests and vegetation drier and therefore more prone to burning.

As a result, the average wildfire season is three and a half months longer than it was a few decades ago, and the number of annual large fires in the West has tripled.

As rising greenhouse gas emissions are increasing droughts and heat, more catastrophic wildfires are expected in the years to come, especially with the fire seasons getting longer.

Source: Environmental Defense Fund, New Scientist

Climate change and disasters

What is the difference between a wildfire and a bushfire?

Wildfire is the general umbrella term, whereas the term bushfire refers to an uncontrollable fire in bushland.

In simple terms, you can specifically refer to the type of wildfire depending on the vegetation present.

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Why disasters are not natural

Wildfires and other extreme events are not ‘natural disasters’.

The term ‘natural disaster’, despite being widely used, is problematic.

Using the word ‘natural’ ignores the role that humans have in the disaster, assuming that the event would happen anyway and there is little that we can do to prevent it.

It’s actually the decisions we make that create a disaster.

Factors like living conditions and poverty, government capacity to prepare and respond, as well as the process of rebuilding and how efficient that would be, are all factors that will define whether a disaster occurs as a result of the natural hazard.

Hazards are inevitable – but the impact they have on society is not.

Read more about the importance of avoiding the term ‘natural disaster’.

Why disasters are not natural

Where do bushfires occur?

Australia is very prone to menacing bushfires.

The country’s climate is generally hot, dry and susceptible to drought.

At any time of the year, some parts of Australia suffer extremely damaging bushfires.

Bushfires tend to occur when light and heavy fuel loads in Eucalypt forests have dried out, usually following periods of low rainfall.

Have a look below at some facts and numbers about the devastating 2020 Australia bushfires.

houses burning on a hill

Australia bushfires: Facts and numbers

As of 6 January 2020

  • There were about 136 fires burning across New South Wales on Monday 6 January.
  • Over 480 million animals died across New South Wales.
  • In total, over 15 million acres have been burned across the country’s six states. That’s larger than the countries of Belgium and Haiti combined.
  • Officials say 24 people have lost their lives nationwide this fire season.

Source: CNN

Sources: CNN, National Geographic, Environmental Defense Fund, American Lung Association

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