Hard scorchers, no rain – during the last weeks, many woods lighted up. Especially Greece and Turkey, but also parts of Macedonia, were hit by the wildfires. Many people lost their houses and properties, some even their highest property – their life. Wildfires seem to become more frequent and stronger every year, so it’s high time to talk about this unpleasant phenomenon.
For many people, it’s a clear case: its cause is, of course, the devil of the devils – the climate change! Sure, climate change plays a significant role, and the fact is that enormous wildfires accelerate climate change, even more, making it a vicious cycle. However, this is not the whole story. One of the biggest problems in the first place is humans and their actions. The vast majority (some studies even showed 95%) of forest fires are ignited by humans, not uncommonly through negligence or arson. A cigarette butt thrown to the ground, a bonfire made too close to or in the forest, and hot catalysts of parked cars or motorcycles as well as leftovers from ammunition can light up a forest for weeks.
A significant aspect that must be taken into account is the reconfiguration of landscapes by humans. Deforestation in general, and especially illegal ones, is a significant cause of wildfires. Wetlands have been drained, and therefore the hydrologic balance has changed – in turn, landscapes dry out faster naturally when the temperatures are high. Furthermore, Human-planted monocultures of conifers burn much faster than a natural broadleaf forest. Last but not least, also our unhealthy relation to natural fires causes bigger ones to appear. From time to time, a forest needs to burn a little to stay healthy. By oppressing those useful natural fires, the forest becomes unbalanced, which in turn can be a cause for the next fire getting out of control.
That brings us to the question if wildfires are inherently bad? As we just found out, the answer is ‘no,’ at least when they are not too strong. Wildfires are part of nature. Lightning strikes and other natural phenomena have caused forest fires for millions of years. Surely not all but many species of animals and plants profit from burned parts of the woods. As always in nature, the death of one is the birth of another. But one of the species that suffers from wildfires is indeed humans. Estimated 339,000 people die every year due to the smoke of wildfires, mostly affected is Asia and the southern Sahara area. Asthma attacks increase tenfold if the smoke reaches residential areas. Needless to say, that it gets much worse when not only the smoke, but also, the fires reach the villages and cities nearby. In Turkey, the recent wildfires forced ten thousand to leave their houses and hotels. So far, eight people have died. Also, in Macedonia, one person died.
It almost seems like nature is trying to punish the responsible. A burned forest looks dead at the first moment, but in most cases, it will recover. In severe cases, it may take decades or even centuries, but eventually, it will recover, and it will be different. One study found out that it takes up to 80 years until the forest soils are recovered again. For a forest, 80 years is nothing. For us humans, it’s a lifetime. We are not able to think in centuries. Maybe we can think with regard to our life span, sometimes about our descendants’ too. But most of the time, we don’t even think about tomorrow, as we do neither about the place that we are just guests at for a while.
Nabu: Ein Zeichen des Klimawandels?
National Geographic: Waldbrände: Ursachen und Gefahren für Mensch, Tier und Planet
RUV: Waldbrand: Gefahr, Ursachen, Spielregeln
DW: Weiter Hunderte Waldbrände auf dem Balkan und am Mittelmeer
Mongabay: Forest soils take longer to recover from fires and logging than previously thought