The world should never forget Australia’s “Black Summer.” On New Year’s Eve, bushfires roared through parts of Victoria and New South Wales. A lot has been lost throughout 2020, but many people began the year already devastated. And as the year-end approaches, the blazes rage on: in California, in the Pantanal (the world’s largest wetland region), and again, in Australia.
Fire is one of the clearest ways to see the climate crisis. Rising temperatures and increased aridity contribute to the conditions that allow fires to grow, especially when nations and states have failed to properly manage forests in the centuries since forcing Indigenous people off their lands. With every fire enters more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, too; a dangerous feedback loop threatening to compound the world’s heating.
The solution? For starters, forest management should be local, says Amy Cardinal Christianson, an Indigenous fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service: “There are local communities and local groups and local Indigenous nations that are really doing good work to reduce fire risk.”
Welcome to The Frontline, where I’ll highlight some of this year’s worst fires and the never-ending disaster of 2020. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Beyond the flames, we’re seeing their smoke increase the risk of COVID-19. “We’re really seeing large human impacts of those fires,” Christianson says. “It seems like even if there’s a small fire, it’s often occurring near a community and is having a major impact.”
August Complex Fire: Northern California
Have you ever heard of a “gigafire”? The August Complex Fire made that term a reality. That’s because the August Complex Fire burned more than one million acres after sparking in August. Firefighters took nearly three months to contain this gigantic blaze, which would become the largest wildfire in California’s modern history.
The culprit? Lightning. Research has found that lightning strikes may become a growing cause of wildfires across the West due to the climate crisis. As heat dries up the western landscape, a strike of lightning is more dangerous today than it was decades ago, causing sparks to erupt into dangerous flames.
The August Complex Fire was especially devastating to forest lands. While it didn’t attack property and residential areas the way other wildfires in California did this year, it killed a firefighter: 63-year-old Diana Jones, who was a volunteer at the time.
The Oregon 2020 Wildfire Season
It’s hard to pinpoint any one wildfire during Oregon’s hellish season because of how tragic they all were. There were the Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires, which killed a mother and son in Elkhorn Valley, some 80 miles northeast of Eugene. The fire season also left Chris Tofte fighting to save his wife.
In total, at least 10 people died this year in Oregon. More than 4,000 homes were destroyed with some towns left as only ashes. In Phoenix, an entire mobile home park and surrounding businesses no longer exist. (The housing crisis is real in the state with the loss of affordable housing, such as mobile parks; Latinx households proving especially vulnerable).
Australia’s Black Summer
The bushfires that ravaged across Australia will go down in history. At least 33 people died, along with estimates of over a billion animals. And thousands of homes were destroyed. A year later, recovery continues, and the fear of another disastrous season lingers.
That fear is especially real for the continent’s Indigenous and Aboriginal populations, which saw an immeasurable loss as cultural and sacred sites caught flame. Many historic natural and ceremonial sites—like scarred trees, which are marked from the bark ancestors would peel off them to make canoes and baskets—were lost with the fires.
Siberian Forests on Fire
The Arctic is perhaps best known for its ice and snow, but fire branded the landscape this year. 2020 proved that even the coldest forests in the world could burn. In Siberia, Russia, more than 51.6 million acres suffered. Bizarrely high temperatures in the region are in part to blame, with scientists having already found links between climate change and the region’s latest heatwave.
The release of permafrost makes these fires especially damaging, too. Permafrost, which is soil that’s supposed to stay permanently frozen, traps methane—a potent greenhouse gas. Increasing temperatures and subsequent flames, however, threaten to release all of it.
A State of Emergency in Indonesia
Wildfires were so severe in part of this country that the province of Central Kalimantan declared a state of emergency in July: More than 700 fires had erupted in the province, which sits on Borneo Island. These fires are usually related to the agricultural production of palm oil, but they threaten essential ecosystems and human settlements when the blazes spiral out of control.
When tropical forests burn, species we know and love—such as orangutans and elephants—come under siege. They lose key habitat, which puts them in conflict with farmers and villagers as the animals try to find the food and water they need to survive.
The compounded effects of all this year’s fires—from greenhouse gas emissions to their limitless destruction—will be felt long after the year ends. The wildfires we’re seeing around the world may have immediate health and safety impacts on those closeby, but such climate impacts are global. Should the Earth’s heating become irreversible, we’ll either be victims or survivors of climate hazards. And climate scientists have been clear: More fire will come.