Wildfires - A Growing Natural Hazard

Wildfire/forest fire, whenever it's raging, spreads fast and furious, covering vast areas extensively. With the exception of Antarctica, wildfires occur on every continent, causing extensive damage, to both property and human life. Even though some wildfires burn in remote forested areas, they are still liable of causing extensive destruction to homes and property in adjoining rural areas. The ensuing haze pollution of acrid smoke and poisonous smog can escalate into regional cross border issues with wider implications. That it's becoming a growing natural hazard in most regions is already acknowledged. Wildfire spreads quickly, consuming almost everything in its path, destroying at times, thousands of acres of surrounding land. Once ignited, wildfires spread at a speed up to 14.29 miles per hour (23 kph). In the United States, wildfires destroy on average, 5 million acres every year. (i)

In August 2010, wildfires which raged during summer in Russia caused an estimated damage of US$ 400 million. The fires which covered 22 Russian regions left 3,500 people homeless. Emergency evacuations at one stage reached 7,000 people per day. In the midst of the fast-spreading wildfires, rescuers managed to save 4,000 residential areas from fires. At its height, acrid smoke from forest and peat bog fires blanketed Moscow with a poisonous smog contributing to a higher death rate in the city. Carbon monoxide concentration at one stage was more than five times the normal level. The smog grounded planes in airports and nearly doubled the number of recorded deaths. When it was raging in mid-August 2010, there were 16 wildfires burning outside Moscow. The 2010 summer, the hottest in Russia in over 130 years with its heatwave reflected the global climate's increased volatility. Wildfires which compounded the drought in Russia destroyed almost a third of its wheat crop, prompting the authorities to ban wheat exports. (ii)

The 1997 forest fires which burned out of control in forest, plantations, and scrublands in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesia) destroyed almost 1 million hectares. The illegal practice of open burning to clear timber and plantation areas aggravated an unusually dry period in the region caused by a severe El Nino event. The resulting smog spread to cities in Indonesia, Malaysia Singapore, and Philippines affecting up to 70 million people.

Mixed with pollution in cities, smoke from the forest fires produced deadly smog, referred to in Asia as "the haze". Over 40,000 people were hospitalized due to the haze which claimed the lives of 19 people in Indonesia. Experts warned that the 1997 haze could be instrumental to 20% of all deaths in the region. Air pollutant Index (API) in parts of Indonesia, and Malaysia reached levels of pollution deemed extremely dangerous to human health. Environmentalists have been quick to decry authorities over failure to control illegal burning, andthe callous destruction of forests. The forest fire disasters highlighted the poorly regulated logging industry and the susceptibility of logged forest to fire, consequent to the forest floor being dried-up in the absence of a "forest canopy".

In the nature of things, even some disasters got forgotten. The east Kalimantan forest fire of 1982-83 burnt approximately 33,000 km of forest (the size of Belgium). Hazards beget disasters, and in the case of wildfires, the fires themselves will contribute significantly to global climate change effects through the massive emission of carbon monoxide. Dire expectations of another round of El Nino dry weather phenomenon in 2010 once again raised concerns whether Indonesia's infamous forest fires will envelope its neighbors in smoke. The major forest fires in 1997-98 already led to the formulation of the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002. Satellite imaging to date revealed a massive decrease in forest fires hotspots, 401 hotspots in Riau (January-April 2010) compared to the same period last year (4,681 hotspots). (iii)

Indonesia has affirmed its commitment to reduce by 20% of forest fires hotspots per year to slash the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Indonesia's 1997 massive forest fires put her as the world's third largest CO2 emitter. Unlike most of the major natural disasters which are primarily domestic, forest fires have the additional dimension of creating cross-border issues. The Indonesian forest fires of 1997-8 was the most damaging in recorded history, where more than 9 million hectares of land were burnt, the majority ( 6.5 million) comprised forested areas. Damages were estimated to be more than USD 9 billion. An estimated 1-2 billion tonnes of CO2 were released by the forest fires. The dry seasons of 2006 and 2007 saw similar problems escalating in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

With 60% of the world's tropical peatlands found in South-east Asia (estimated to be 24 million hectares) it'sinevitable that ASEAN placed management of transboundaryhaze pollution as one of its priorities. Fires in peat soils comprise a major contributor to transboundary haze pollution. Seventy percent of South-East Asia's peatlands are in Indonesia. There has been substantial progress in joint mitigation efforts against transboundary haze pollution under ASEAN's Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP).

When forest fires become transboundary environmental disaster, neighbouring countries get badly affected by the smoke, haze, and the ensuing poisonous smog. The experience of South-east Asian countries during the dry seasons in 1991, 1994, and 1997, with millions across the region affected was indicative of the severity and extent of the resulting smoke haze pollution. The impact of this particular environmental disaster was enormous, its extent yet to be fully determined. It left scars across various economic sectors including air, water and land transport, shipping, construction, tourism, forestry and agriculture. The long-term health effects on the people of the countries affected nevertheless remained unanswered. A framework for sustainable management of peatlands for the period 2006-2020 has been established by ASEAN, with its principal strategies aimed at reducing incidences of forest fires and associated haze.

Raging wildfire infernos in southern Australia last year (February 2009) left more than 160 people dead. The speed it took to spread quickly beyond characteristics of wildfire has been described as being closer to an "aerial bombing". There had been early-warning signs way back. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires in Australia, resulting from steadily warming temperatures over the next several decades. The Australian government's own Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in its 2007 report outlined potential for severe warming scenarios on the extreme end of the spectrum by 2050.

Described as the driest inhabited continent on the planet, it's inevitable that destructive wildfires getting common in Australia. Climate change is expected to worsen Australia's extreme heat waves and droughts. Prolonged drought in Southwestern Australia has drastically decimated agriculture and also resulted in widespread water rationing.

Global warming will contribute to the impetus towards extreme weather conditions. As we observe the increasing frequency of wildfires/forest fires, what's the state of our environmental disaster preparedness? Has our disaster management capacity improved to a level whereby we are able to provide aggressive responses to such natural disasters? Our emergency preparedness should mitigate natural disasters from turning into human catastrophes. (iv)

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