Climate Crisis

Forest wildfires could actually help combat climate change. Here’s how

some wildfires, like this one here in Portugal, may actually help forest ecosystems

Some wildfires help clear undergrowth and stop more powerful fires from occurring. Image: Unsplash/Michael Held

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Climate Crisis

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  • Warming temperatures are drying forests and increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires.
  • But there are good and bad wildfires, explains Jad Daley, President and CEO of American Forests.
  • Some wildfires help clear undergrowth and prevent harmful super wildfires devastating forest ecosystems.
  • Adopting a science-based, data-led approach to reforestation could help prepare forests for the impact of future climate changes.

Reports of out-of-control wildfires continue to fill media headlines in different parts of the world. While summer blazes are a seasonal staple, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of forest wildfires.

a graph showing the increase in US wildfire frequency is an indicator of climate change
The increase in US wildfire frequency is an indicator of climate change. Image: EPA

The US National Interagency Fire Center reports a marked increase in wildfire frequency as temperatures warm, from around 18,000 blazes in 1983, when they first started tracking them, to almost 59,000 outbreaks in 2020. A picture mirrored in many other parts of the world.

Jad Daley is President and CEO of American Forests, the oldest non-profit conservation concern in the US, which is dedicated to protecting and restoring threatened forest ecosystems. Here, he gives expert insights into the challenges and benefits of wildfire outbreaks. (Some quotes have been edited.)

Q. Are all wildfires unwanted or are some fires useful?

It’s really important to distinguish between good fires and bad fires because many of the forest systems that we have in the United States and around the world actually evolved with fire. They need a certain amount of fire to clear out undergrowth, and to release seeds from cones in different types of conifer trees, for example.

Unfortunately, climate change has dried out forests and supercharged many wildfires. This combination leads to fires that burn so intensely nothing will regrow in many places, unless we actually go back and reforest these areas once the fire has passed.

We need to get the right balance of allowing those good fires to move through our forests when they occur naturally, and also creating what we call ‘prescribed fires’ – actually lighting small fires and managing their progress through the forest.

Q. How does starting good fires protect against bad ones?

The worst incidents of climate-fuelled super fires occur when forests are out of balance with the climate. Where there is insufficient water available and where trees are too densely clustered together to be able to survive in today’s warming climate.

Lighting fires on purpose and managing them helps rebalance forest density, by clearing out smaller, younger trees to create space that prevents wildfire moving through while ensuring the trees that remain have enough water to survive and thrive.

this diagram shows where the climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires.
Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Image: UCSUSA

Q. Is climate change the only catalyst for wildfires?

There’s a negative synergy taking place that’s driven by climate change. Warming temperatures cause more drought that can weaken and even kill trees. But this also creates a friendlier environment for pests and disease. And that’s a big factor in the declining health we’re seeing in our forests.

In California, more than 160 million trees have died since 2010, driven by this synergy of climate-driven droughts, pests and diseases. The abundance of dead trees is fuelling the wildfire crisis in the state and the same thing is being played out across America and other parts of the world.

Have you read?

Q. What can be done to prevent or contain future damaging wildfires?

Our response to the wildfire crisis can be broken into three phases. Firstly, preventing climate-fuelled fires involves abandoning our old forestry management mindset and looking at climate science to understand the conditions our forests will need to withstand in future. We need to reshape forests and align them with the right tree species, the right genetics and the right composition and distribution of trees to make them more resilient.

Secondly, when wildfires do occur, our firefighting approach needs to evolve and become climate-smart. Rather than putting out all fires, good fires from lightning strikes and other natural causes should be left to move through and cleanse the forest to create healthy, resilient ecosystems.

Finally, in the aftermath of wildfires we need to use science and AI-enabled tools to identify and embrace climate-resilient reforestation, instead of simply replanting things as they were. Moving trees used to hotter and drier conditions from lower elevations to higher elevations to increase climate-change resilience, for example. That’s going to create a different result when the next blaze happens.

a structure burned by the Caldor fire is seen in Twin Bridges, California, U.S., September 1, 2021
Making forests climate-resilient could help reduce the destruction caused by super wildfires. Image: REUTERS/Aude Guerrucci

Q. Can we still rely on nature to heal itself?

It’s important that we become comfortable with the fact our climate is changing and our forests need to change, too. Keeping forests as they are now won’t work because they’re out of sync with the planet’s changing climate. We’ve broken nature, so we can’t simply trust nature to heal itself. It’s a problem created by humans and we need to help nature fix it.

But nature has provided us with a space-age climate solution: trees. Wood is the climate-smart building material of the future that’s renewable, stores carbon and generates less greenhouse gases to produce than other materials. The kind of climate-informed, active forestry needed to transition to wildfire resilience is going to generate a lot more woody material in our forests. And that’s an opportunity to build skyscrapers out of wood – to switch manufacturing toward heavy reliance on renewable natural materials.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Q. Can science-based reforestation help tackle climate change?

A lot of people wrongly conclude that the wildfire crisis means forests can’t help us solve climate change, as scorched woodland releases a lot of stored carbon into the atmosphere.

The great news is our forests can help us resolve climate change. Using science, data and forging the right partnerships to make our forests more resilient, works. It’s really just a matter of building on these success stories and scaling this climate-informed approach to include all forests everywhere. On the whole, our forests are still an overwhelming net solution for climate change.

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