Wildfire risk heightened by climate crisis – but let’s not forget colonialism’s role in these deadly disasters

Wildfire in California.
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As devastating wildfires rage around the globe, a new study has shown that the climate crisis has sharply boosted the risk of the fast-spreading blazes. Worse still, further climate warming could cause the number of deadly infernos to skyrocket.

Published Wednesday 30 August, the research found that human-caused warming had increased the frequency of “extreme” wildfires in California by 25% on average compared to the pre-industrial era.

Scientists at the Breakthrough Institute – a nonprofit research centre – published the study in the journal Nature.

The climate crisis has fanned the flames

Examining a series of blazes from 2003 to 2020, the scientists used machine learning to analyse the link between higher average temperatures, drier conditions, and the fastest-spreading blazes. They defined these as fires that burn more than 10,000 acres a day.

Using data from recorded fires, the researchers measured the probability of a given blaze turning into an “extreme” one. Then, they used computer models to calculate the extent to which the post-industrial rise in temperatures had increased that risk.

The impact of climate change varied from fire to fire. In certain partially dry conditions, global warming pushed the area beyond key thresholds, making extreme fires much more likely. In very dry conditions, the impact was less severe.

As a result, for some fires the study concluded that there was no marked climate-induced change. Conversely, for others, it had heightened the risk of a fast-spreading blaze by as much as 461%.

Read on...

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Lead author Patrick Brown stated that:

This means that we should pay the closest attention to the places and times that historically have experienced conditions just on the moist side of these thresholds, but which are being pushed over these thresholds onto the dry side by background warming

Wildfires everywhere – and it could get worse

The researchers calculated that the risk could increase on average by 59% by the end of the century under a “low-emissions” scenario. Specifically, this scenario entails the world limiting warming to 1.8°c above pre-industrial levels. By comparison, in a “high-emissions” scenario, the risk shoots up by 172%

To date, Earth’s surface has warmed by 1.2°c. Already, the world is on fire. As the Canary has reported, enormous wildfires have raged in recent months across Europe, the US, and Canada.

In March, Spain’s first major wildfire of the year lead prime minister Pedro Sanchez to declare it proof of the intensifying climate emergency.

The deadly blaze in Hawaii killed 115 people, with nearly 400 people still unaccounted for. Meanwhile, wildfires in Canada have forced 200,000 people from their homes.

What’s more, EU officials have called the blaze in Greece the bloc’s biggest wildfire on record. The inferno spans a 6-mile front, and has so far killed 20 people.

California has also suffered a string of extreme wildfires in recent years. In 2020, wildfires killed more than 30 people, and razed four million acres. These were some of the biggest fires in the state’s history.

A 2022 United Nations Environment Programme report on wildfires said they are becoming more common due to hotter, drier conditions caused by the climate crisis. It noted that this includes regions not traditionally prone to them.

Coloniality of the climate crisis

Of course, the impacts of climate-exarcerbated wildfires have caused particular devastation where they have magnified underlying injustices. This harkens to the colonial roots of the climate crisis, which continues to exact its effects on those very same oppressed communities.

In particular, industrialised colonial nations have belched out the bulk of emissions that have fueled climate warming. However, the impacts of super-charged extreme weather have disproportionately hit the less industrialised nations least responsible.

Moreover, former member of the Hawaii House of Representatives Kaniela Ing highlighted the role of colonialism in heightening the risk of the Maui wildfires. Specifically, 18th century sugar plantations had destroyed the fertile Lahaina wetland ecosystem. As the new study has pointed out, heightened aridity is a significant risk enhancer. As such, the drier conditions that settler colonialism induced only intensified the risk of the deadly blaze.

Furthermore, the Canary’s Maryam Jameela has previously spelled out the inextricable link between colonialism and the impacts of the climate crisis on frontline communities. Speaking on the reoccurring deadly floods in Pakistan, she argued that:

the impact of flooding in Pakistan is made worse because of the colonial climate crisis. The actions of Western countries like the UK, US, and Canada have directly created the deaths and displacement of people in Pakistan.

Naturally, displaced migrants from countries facing climate-fueled disaster also face additional dangers in the countries where they seek shelter. In Greece, of the 20 people killed in last week’s fires, authorities believe that 19 were migrants. Moreover, xenophobes have subjected migrants to abhorrent anti-migrant racism in response to the fires.

In this way, climate breakdown is what’s known as a “threat multiplier”. Essentially, the climate crisis compounds existing inequity, meaning that it impacts marginalised groups on multiple, interwoven levels. As such, without tackling the underpinning manifestations of colonialism, these deadly blazes and other extreme-weather effects will continue to cause the greatest harm to the most vulnerable communities.

Feature image via U.S. Airforce Senior Master Sgt. Dennis W. Goff/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, in the public domain. 

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.

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