By: Kirsten Hogg

Wildfires are a natural occurrence that can benefit ecosystems through the clearance of dead organic material, improving soil fertility and facilitating the reproductive cycle for certain plants.  The increasing severity and prevalence of wildfires in recent years is not natural though, it is the result of regions becoming drier and hotter as a result of climate change.  In the past year alone there have been devastating wildfires in Canada, Hawaii and Europe.

As temperatures continue to rise due to global warming, we will be faced with more frequent and larger wildfires.  The wildfires in turn will generate more greenhouse gases which will further contribute to global warming.  The main way to reduce the incidence and severity of wildfires in the long term is to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.  In the meantime, there are other measures we can take to help reduce the risk and impact of wildfires.

Fuel reduction techniques

The severity of wildfires can be reduced by limiting the vegetation available to fuel the fire.  Fuel reduction techniques include controlled burning, grazing stock and mechanical methods.

Controlled burning involves targeted burning of fuel on the ground of forests and grasslands.  In some countries that regularly face the threat of wildfires, like the United States, Canada and Australia, controlled burning has become an established practice.  Whilst it is impractical to use controlled burning over very large areas due to the cost involved and the pollution that is released, it is an effective wildfire management technique in areas close to human habitation. 

Other fuel reduction techniques include using grazing stock to reduce fuel loads in grasslands and using machinery to assist with thinning vegetation such as trees and branches.

Individual action

Individuals can take action to avoid inadvertently igniting wildfires and to reduce the chance of wildfires spreading to their homes.  For example:

  • When lighting fires, it should be checked that the fire is not near combustible or flammable materials that could result in the fire becoming out of control, and the fire should not be left unattended. 
  • When finished with a fire, it should be doused until it is cold to avoid the risk of it reigniting. 
  • Activities that involve sparks, such as fireworks, should be avoided in hot and dry environments. 
  • Smoking materials should be disposed of in a non-flammable container.
  • Machines with an exhaust should be checked to ensure they have a spark arrestor to prevent the emission of flammable debris. 
  • Vegetation and combustible materials should be cleared away from the areas surrounding buildings to help reduce the risk of wildfire spreading from these materials to the buildings. 
  • Fire resistant plants can be planted around homes as well as fire-resistant zones created using non-flammable materials such as stone.

Individual awareness of the wildfire risks and preventative action that can be taken will be critical to combatting wildfires in future.