2019 was the harbinger of bad news for the world’s forests. Reports of wildfires raging for days and razing massive swathes of species-rich habitats made viral news this year.
Stories of uncontrollable infernos poured in from all corners of the globe and across all continents except for the frozen one. Disheartening news of wildlife losing their home and dying in thousands wrenched hearts of millions. Humans were also not spared. Some lost their lives, others barely managed to escape leaving behind all that they had earned for decades to be turned to smoke and ash.
World Atlas has compiled a list of the countries affected by the worst wildfires of 2019. Is your country on this lethal list?
The Amazon Countries, South America
No wildfire has probably triggered such a hue and cry ever as the 2019 wildfires in the South American countries that share the Amazon rainforest, namely Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru. The world’s largest carbon sink, and a ‘rain’forest, one of the world’s wettest habitats, faced extreme threat when wildfires raged through it during the 2019 fire season, destroying the homes of indigenous tribes, killing wildlife, and darkening skies over major cities. With 60% of the Amazon rainforest within its boundaries, Brazil suffered the worst fate. Irresponsibly handled slash-and-burn agricultural practices that indiscriminately cleared vast tracts of the forest making the interiors vulnerable, were held accountable for the fires. However, the increase in intensity of these fires in 2019 was also blamed on the policies of the current Bolsonaro government that slashed the environmental protection budget of Brazil by 24% in 2019.
Australia came under the lethal swipe of bushfires in 2019 after suffering one of the worst droughts in decades. The high temperatures, strong winds, and dry conditions were ideal to spark giant infernos in the country. Clouds of smoke from bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland could be seen as far away as New Zealand. Although homes in the country in the bushfire-affected regions are usually designed to withstand fires, they could not resist the catastrophic conditions in 2019. Australia has already lost three people and 350 koalas to the 2019 bushfires. Hundreds of others are being treated for injuries. And, of course, summer has not even begun.
United States, North America
Devastating fires also gripped parts of the US, especially California where thousands of acres burned down causing billions of dollars of property loss and forcing thousands to flee their homes. According to experts, bigger and more destructive fires will strike the state in the future as climate change intensifies and human encroachment on forested lands increase. Data shows that 10 of California’s most destructive wildfires have occurred in the last decade.
The Southeast Asian Haze
Rainforests in Indonesia blew up in smoke and ash as fires destroyed them in 2019. According to the European Union’s atmosphere observation program, fires in these forests released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than those in Amazon. 709 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the annual emission of Canada, were released into the atmosphere. Farmers clearing land for agriculture sparked these forest fires.
United Kingdom, Europe
Although it did not receive much global attention, the UK also burned in 2019. A series of wildfires grasped the country and ravaged through its moorlands from February 26. Such an early occurrence of fires was never expected. 96 wildfires occurred in the country as of April 23, beating the previous year’s record of 79.
Fires like the Marsden Moor fires in West Yorkshire devastated massive tracts of wildlife habitat. The Marsden Moor fires are believed to have been triggered by a discarded barbecue. It destroyed 700 hectares of land with important peat soils. Rare ground-nesting birds like curlew, and mountain hares lost their habitat.
Rosie Holdsworth, the Natural Flood Management Project Manager, told BBC “The damage caused by the fires will take decades to restore, especially the peat soils.”
India, South Asia
The forests of India, a South Asian nation, were also not spared in 2019. A series of infernos starting in February and continuing into March razed down 15,443.27 acres of forest in the country’s Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka state. Adjacent protected areas of Wayanad and Mudumalai also lost 295 acres and 123 acres of forest land respectively to the fires. According to wildlife authorities, while the larger mammals like tigers and leopards could possibly escape by migrating to safer areas, slow-moving species like reptiles would have suffered the worst fate. A failure of the northeast monsoon and high summer temperatures created optimum conditions in Bandipur for forest fires. However, the fires were started by human activity when people attempted to burn forest land to keep elephants at bay. Diligent efforts were made by the forest officials and workers to douse the fires and they finally succeeded in controlling the same.
Siberia, Russia, East Asia
Parts of Siberia went up in flames in summer 2019 that torched over 7 million hectares of Siberian wilderness in just two months. These areas recorded temperatures 10 degrees Fahrenheit above the 30-year average from 1981 to 2010. The dry conditions resulting from such climate change fuelled the wildfires in the region devastating an area larger than Greece. An army was deployed by Vladimir Putin to control the fires and even Donald Trump took notice and offered help to his counterpart to douse the flames.
More Countries Affected
The above list is not complete without mentioning the wildfires that raged through Vietnam, South Korea, and some sub-Saharan African countries.
Is Climate Change The Culprit?
So, as we can see above, wild habitats in many countries of the world across six continents were enveloped by giant infernos. Lives were lost, vital habitats were damaged, and massive financial losses were incurred.
One question was raised every time a wildfire was born. Is it due to climate change? So, while the Amazon burned, a toxic haze chocked lives in Southeast Asia, forest authorities spent sleepless nights to save India’s forests from blazes, and mass evacuations were conducted in wildfire-stricken California, scientists across the world scratched their heads to detect the root cause of all these infernos.
One thing was clear. The initial spark needed to start these wildfires was almost always triggered by human action, whether intentional or not. Forest burning for agriculture, irresponsibly discarded cigarette butts, bonfires or barbeques, or simple ignorance of forest protocols by concerned authorities, have generated catastrophic fires causing millions of deaths.
However, humans are now doing more than just spark a wildfire. As reported by Yale Climate Connections - wildfires have grown in intensity and frequency - and climate change is to blame for it. Although climate change events have happened several times in Earth’s history and wiped out species in the past, never before has it been caused by the thoughtless actions and immense greed of one species on Earth, the Homo sapiens.
World Economic Forum mentions that climate change has "exacerbated the trend of large fires and contributed to the lengthening of the fire season." In the US, it is climate change that has nearly doubled the burned area over the past 35 years.
It is, in fact, a vicious circle where climate change worsens fire and the latter, in turn, contributes to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that further raises global temperatures. Humans, worsen both.