Extreme wildfires are here to stay. Can human beings really fight them?
Updated: Jul 19
The fire is in front of me. Wind drags the smoke into my eyes. One of the firefighters steps back, overwhelmed by the fumes. The rest of the line continues to work almost robotically: 10 people swatting with beaters, made of metal and rubber. “Up! Down! Move! Step!” our group leader chants, above the crackle of burning grass. With that rhythm, we try to suffocate the fire.
When we trained for this exercise, our instructor, a burly 57-year-old South African named Dean Ferreira, warned us: “There’s no such thing as an average fire. They all have potential.” In other words, if you assume that you’ve seen this fire before, you will misjudge it. The wind may be stronger, the vegetation may be drier, and the slope may carry the flames faster. “Be a student of fire,” we are told, because there is much to learn and little margin for error.
This is a forest-fire camp in western Poland. It’s an opportunity for a few hundred firefighters, experts and hangers-on from around Europe to meet, learn and give mutual support. “Sometimes in our home countries, talking about fire we feel alone, very alone,” one of the organisers explains. There are firefighters who have served in the US’s elite “hotshot” crews, rugged men used to helicoptering into remote forests with three days of food and water in their rucksacks. There are amateurs from Germany, a country whose wildland firefighting relies on about a million volunteers. Thanks to climate change, the amateur and professional paths have converged.
Firefighting, I quickly learn, is an odd pursuit. We associate it with dramatic acts of heroism, a fireman carrying a child from a burning building, for example. But that’s urban fighting, or “structural firefighting” in the jargon. Fighting wildfires isn’t quite like that. Often, there aren’t roads for fire engines or access to water. Instead, wildland firefighters rely on back-breaking, monotonous work.
If the flames are less than a metre high, tamping down with beaters can cut off the fire’s oxygen. Then there’s the equally laborious task of digging small trenches in the soil, cutting out every flammable tree root, so a fire cannot spread to the other side. My body aches after a few minutes. Sweat trickles inside my insulated jacket and trousers.
“What’s it like to work at a wildfire?” says Amelie Reichel, a German volunteer whose day job is in IT. “It’s hot. You have to hike a lot with probably 20kg on your back, work 10-hour shifts, sleep max six hours. You are exposed to smoke, fire and ash all the time, your eyes start burning, trees suddenly fall down around you, it’s noisy, you take naps on the forest floor in between. On the other hand, you get to feel this crazy team spirit.” “You have to be in for the long haul, and it’s not all glorious,” says Lindon Pronto, a fire expert at the European Forest Institute, a think-tank that helps to run the camp. Extinguishing a house fire may take several hours. Extinguishing a wildfire may take weeks, even months.
Often, firefighters can’t extinguish them at all. As we meet in Poland, Canada is facing its worst year of wildfires on record. Two years ago, Konstantinos Tsakalidis’ photograph of an elderly woman appearing to struggle for breath and comprehension of the Greek wildfires raging behind her seemed singular. By the time New York was being blackened in an ominous orange haze this summer, it was clear similarly apocalyptic images are bound to become familiar.
Almost everywhere, fires are burning bigger, hotter, longer. The best wildland firefighters can suppress 99 per cent. But it’s the remaining 1 per cent that matters. That tiny minority — sparked by lightning or human beings, fanned by winds and a warming planet — is responsible for nearly all the damage. (In recent years, Canada has recorded fewer fires, but those fires are burning more land.)
Fires are measured by their intensity: how much energy they emit at their fiercest point. The most powerful firefighting equipment that humans have — Canadair planes that cost roughly $35mn each and drop 30 bathtubs’ worth of water at a time — can extinguish fires with an intensity of up to 10,000 kilowatts per metre of fire line. Today’s mega-fires are a different order of magnitude, sometimes exceeding 100,000 kilowatts per metre.
The citizens of rich countries have little experience of open fire. When we see it on the news, we expect firefighters — and their aircraft — to already be putting it out. “In Portugal, journalists are always asking, ‘Where are the helicopters? Where are the aeroplanes to put out the fire?’ Because they believe they can put out the fire,” says Paulo Fernandes, associate professor at the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro.
In fact, the smoke may be so bad the planes can’t even fly. And the water drops may evaporate before they even touch the flames. “It’s like spitting on a campfire. We waste so much money on these large fires that would be much better spent on prevention, mitigation and preparedness,” says Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Canada’s Thompson Rivers University.
On the ground, fire crews would get second-degree burns if they even approached mega-fires. These fires jump across rivers and roads that might once have acted like firebreaks. They defy the historic rhythms of fire: they can burn as strongly in the dark as they do in the day, because the nights are now warmer and drier. What does it mean to be a student of fire, when all the textbooks are out of date?
“In the 1980s, a 1,000-hectare fire was something big. In the ’90s, it was 5,000 hectares. In the 2000s, it was 10,000 hectares. Now it’s something bigger than 30,000,” says Marc Castellnou, head of Catalunya’s specialist wildland fighting agency, Graf.
A few decades ago, Castellnou placed his hopes in better weather models, monitoring and warning systems. “There was a generation of people, like myself, who thought we could solve the problem with technology.” By 2003, that approach had failed: technology could not stop more than 5 per cent of Portugal’s forests burning in a single year. Instead, fires slowed when they reached areas that had been managed beforehand by controlled fires or grazing. It confirmed what some fire experts and indigenous peoples long knew: if you put out too many fires, you don’t solve the problem, you just store up fuel for an even bigger burn in future.
So in Poland, at the camp, we learn how to put out fires, but we also learn that this can only ever be part of the solution. We simulate using the firefighters’ last resort: the fire shelter. This is an insulated material the size of a large holdall, into which you curl up and press yourself into the ground. If you cannot escape, the fire burns over you, which may or may not save your life. Firefighters carry one in the hope of never having to use it.
We learn that the smart work — much less risky than fire shelters, much more efficient than expensive aeroplanes and helicopters — would come long before the wildfires started. It would come by a system of controlled, less intensive fires — prescribed burns — and livestock grazing, which would use up the fuel in the least damaging way possible. In Spain and Portugal, there is a saying: “You put out the fires in winter.” “We cannot decide if our landscape will burn or not burn,” Castellnou told me. “The only thing we can decide is if it will burn in low intensity or high intensity, in low damage or high damage.” Yet I wondered if Castellnou was giving humans too much agency. Wildfire was once the enemy. Now it has to be a relationship, in which we may not have the upper hand.
Fire is natural. Lightning hits the ground millions of times a day. Mostly it hits damp, tropical areas, which don’t burn. But it also hits areas like the Mediterranean and the boreal forests that stretch around the northern hemisphere, which, in certain conditions, do burn. Species there evolved for fire. Some trees, including California’s redwoods or the cluster pine found in the Mediterranean, have cones that open after being exposed to intense heat. Some hardwoods are destroyed above ground by fire but resprout from below the ground. The Mediterranean cork oak is insulated by the air in the bark; it benefits from the fire wiping out its competitors. Many animals know to hide underground while a fire passes. Tree rings reveal historic cycles of fire: every 100 years or so in much of the boreal forest, less than 10 years in the longleaf pine forests of Florida. Humans, too, co-evolved with fire. The savannahs where we came from burn.
Indigenous peoples burnt land to promote certain species or to clear land for livestock. According to a 2007 study by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, Native Americans burnt an average of 1.8mn hectares a year in California alone. “Skies were likely smoky much of the summer and fall in California during the prehistoric period,” the scientists wrote.
The village of Balmoral, southwest of Sydney, has been decimated by the Green Wattle Creek firestorm. Soaring temperatures and an extended drought, one of the worst on record, have dried out much of the state and exacerbated the phenomenon of wildfires which are a common occurrence in Australia. From September to the end of 2019 over 1,200 were destroyed by various bushfires burning across the states of New South Wales and Victoria.
The only recent year that the state’s wildfires have burnt 1.8mn hectares is 2020. (The difference is that today’s wildfires, fuelled by climate change, are more intense. Most trees do not survive them in the way that they did survive the indigenous burns.)
When European settlers arrived in California and elsewhere, they prohibited deliberate fires. The historian Stephen Pyne dates this preference to the Enlightenment, which had made open fire unfashionable: “Open burning reeked of superstition and magic; it was deemed dangerous and unnecessary.” Moreover, temperate Europe, including Britain and Germany, is one of the few regions that hasn’t had fire at its heart. Northern Europeans viewed open fire as an aberration and a risk.
By the early 20th century in North America, authorities were focused on suppressing fires wherever possible. Forests were an asset, and forest fires damaged them. In 1910, Gifford Pinchot, chief of the US Forest Service, said, “Forest fires are wholly within the control of men.” Humans are not the only species who will spread fire. In Australia, at least three species of birds are known by Aboriginal peoples to pick up smouldering sticks and take them to other grassy areas, apparently to flush out potential prey. But we became the only species focused on trying to put fire out.
Our control of fire was a Pyrrhic — or pyric — victory. The forests got thicker. The climate got warmer. The fires got bigger. In the US, this has been linked to the rise in people living near the forest, people leaving cities like San Francisco for cheaper, more spacious housing. But in Europe, a contrasting trend is at play. In Portugal, Spain and Italy, people have been leaving the countryside for cities. Those that remain tend to be older. Small-scale farming, which helped limit the spread of wildfires, is no longer profitable. Plots of lands that produced olives or food for livestock have been taken over by trees. This forest regeneration has been seen as an environmental success story. But given the warming climate, it created a tinderbox.
This is where prescribed burning comes in. Castellnou, the Catalan forest fire chief, likens it to a vaccine: “Just as in medicine, a vaccine contains the same disease to create resistance. We need to vaccinate our forests.” Prescribed fires are generally carried out in the cooler months, when the vegetation is packed with water, so that the fire can be brought under control. Fire can be spread from cans of gasoline, carried by firefighters, or dropped from helicopters or drones.
These low-intensity fires lick along the base of a forest, incinerating needles and brush, but leave most of the trees undamaged. (Bigger forest fires reach into the canopy, then jump easily from tree to tree.) One indication of the effectiveness of prescribed burns is a photo from August 2022, showing a Portuguese pine forest after a wildfire: the part that had been “vaccinated” with controlled fire beforehand still has green canopies, the rest is black char.
But prescribed fires have remained unpopular. Their smoke is seen as a nuisance; in Italy, it falls foul of air-quality legislation. The fires sometimes spin out of control, creating liability issues. Last year, about 1,000 properties were destroyed in New Mexico, when a prescribed burn escaped and merged with a wildfire. A report later found that the US Forest Service had overestimated the humidity, thereby underestimating how easily the fire would spread. Prescribed burns also require money and trained individuals. As a result, fire-prone countries only do a fraction of what experts say is necessary. “[In Catalunya], we should be managing 1 per cent of our countryside a year,” says Castellnou. “We are far away. We are at 0.3 per cent.”
In 2003, Portugal had more hectares burnt by forest fires than the rest of the EU put together. The same happened in 2017, when 66 people were killed in fires in the region of Pedrógão Grande. A new emphasis was placed on prescribed burning and on streamlining the forest service. But it hasn’t been enough.
“The UK has more burning for grouse-shooting than we do in Portugal for fire prevention,” says Fernandes, the academic. (The burning of grouse moors is controversial in Britain, blamed for damaging the carbon-rich peat.) “The prevailing view is that all fire is bad. The forest ideology is central European, where there [were] no fires.” Unlike in North America, where there are at least Native American cultures of burning to draw on, in Europe much of the knowledge has been lost or never acquired. Prescribed burning isn’t practised in the Czech Republic, which is newly fire prone.
There are other ways to manage the landscape. In France and Spain, fire experts talk of a mosaic landscape — where pasture and arable land help to break up stretches of forests. Sheep and cows graze on the vegetation. Vineyards are less flammable than forests, so they can provide safe zones to which firefighters can retreat as the fire approaches.
About one-quarter of Portugal’s forests are made up of fast-growing eucalyptus trees, planted because they offer a relatively quick income on poor soils. Eucalyptus trees suck up water and burn fast. In parts of Portugal, the trees are being replaced by native species, which should slow the spread of fire. Germany is trialling the planting of Mediterranean oaks, whose thick bark insulates them against fire.
We can also try to control the ignitions. Many wildfires are caused by arsonists, others by human carelessness. During Canada’s recent fires, the mayor of Halifax said a resident had been found burning leaves with a propane torch. “This is a clear violation of the no-stupid policy,” he fumed. On extremely hot, dry and windy days, Californian utilities now switch off electricity supply to certain areas to avoid sparks flying. Australia implements “total fire bans”. This means no solid-fuel barbecues and no campfires, but also no angle-grinders or welding in the open, no taking four-wheel-drive vehicles off-road and generally no live electric fences. In the UK, meanwhile, where most wildfires are ignited by humans, disposable barbecues are still on sale at the height of summer.
A mega-fire is an emergency, yet when you fight one, your first strategy is patience. Within minutes, the flames can become too high to fight with beaters or hoses. “There are some conditions when you cannot do so much,” says Giacomo Sbaragli, an Italian instructor, at the Polish forest fire camp. “You can only wait.” Wait, and try to predict how it will spread.
Using sand spread over a large table, Sbaragli has built a model of a recent Italian fire. He explains how fire moves with fuel, wind and terrain. Fire moves faster uphill. A rule of thumb is that the speed of fire will double for every 10-degree gradient. But mega-fires also create their own weather, spawning huge pyrocumulonimbus, or pyroCb, plumes that can extend the fire by sucking in oxygen. PyroCbs can create thunderstorms and lightning, which spark new fires. During the 2016 Fort McMurray fire in Canada, these new fires were 22 miles from the original forefront.
Fire crews look at weather forecasts. They wait for rain — or a cooler night — which might allow them to start approaching the fire from behind or the side. They also work out where they might be able to hold a line. Last year, near Bordeaux, French authorities dug a firebreak 300m wide and five kilometres in length. Where possible, crews spray the perimeter with water to try to make vegetation less flammable. At last year’s Bejís fire in south-east Spain, this involved stringing together hoses until they were two kilometres long. The fire ended up burning more than 19,000 hectares. “If you read about 20,000 hectares, that’s just a number. But if you climb a mountain, and everything you can see is black, that’s really shocking,” says Jesús Morcillo i Julià, a firefighter involved.
These firebreaks are often combined with “backburning”, when firefighters set alight the vegetation between the firebreak and the fire. Like a prescribed burn, this effectively removes the fire’s fuel. But it is riskier, because it takes place not in cool months in advance of fire season, but on hot, dry days when wildfires are already burning.
The good news, if there is any, is that fires do not have to be lethal. During last year’s Bejís fire, about 2,000 people were evacuated. No one died, even though a train was caught up in the flames. Evacuation is itself a risk: in Portugal’s 2017 Pedrógão Grande fire, most of the deaths came as people fled by car. People at risk of wildfires are advised to evacuate early, even before they are told to, or to be prepared to defend their property. In northern California’s mega-complex fires, 30 to 60 per cent of the buildings within the area of the fire were not damaged. The key, say risk modellers Moody’s RMS, is that the embers should have nothing to burn when they fall on the structure.
The speed at which wildfires have become part of our reality has caught many people by surprise. We were warned that wildfires would increase under climate change. But the warnings were not vivid.
A 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said: “Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heatwaves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence).” This would not have prepared New Yorkers for the wildfire smoke that dimmed their skies this summer. Scientists are not dramatists. And perhaps we, the public, had to see the impact before we would believe it.
In North America, wildfires have damaged areas that were meant to serve as carbon offsets. In Europe too. “Nowadays, there’s this movement to plant trees to store carbon, which I think is another mistake because they will burn, at least in southern Europe and also progressively in northern Europe,” says Portugal’s Paulo Fernandes. “We cannot really trust forest plantations to store carbon.”
Worse, forest fires generate huge carbon emissions. Those emissions would be soaked up if the forest regrew on the same spot. But in the intervening decades, they will help to accelerate climate change, increasing the risk of even more fires. As fires become more frequent, a larger proportion of forests will be in a degraded state, holding less carbon and less biodiversity.
There is still uncertainty about where and how wildfires will hit. How fire weather translates into actual wildfires depends on the landscape and on human actions. “It’s not the same as modelling floods, where there is much more directly a response to a change in precipitation,” says Matthew Jones, a research fellow at the University of East Anglia. Nonetheless, a UN report last year predicted that extreme fires would increase by 14 per cent by 2030, 30 per cent by 2050 and 50 per cent by 2100.
Most of the Iberian peninsula has been in extreme drought. This week, parts of Andalusia and Crete were rated at “very extreme danger” of fire. After experiencing its second-worst wildfires on record in 2022, the EU doubled the number of aircraft in its firefighting reserve to 28. This reserve can be deployed to whichever EU countries are most in need. Fire experts shrugged. “Spain has [more than] 200 planes and helicopters. The EU is reinforcing all of Europe with 28. It’s nothing!” says Fernandes. But when the fires burn this summer, the reserve will at least allow politicians to say that they are sending reinforcements. This month, viral videos showed South African firefighters, in Canada to help, singing joyfully in unison. International solidarity is a source of light in dark times.
Canada’s experience is otherwise sobering. The area burnt by wildfires has doubled since the 1970s “largely, not solely, due to human-caused climate change”, says Canadian researcher Flannigan. Fire thrives in hot, windy, dry weather, often defined as a temperature above 30C, a wind speed above 30 kmph and humidity below 30 per cent. Climate change means longer fire seasons, more lightning and more evaporation, meaning more flammable landscapes. Prescribed burning can only reduce the risk so much. In extreme conditions, even treated areas can burn again, and the wind can carry fires kilometres ahead to untreated areas. “The Americans are spending billions of dollars trying to treat fuel across a landscape. It’s doomed to failure,” says Flannigan. “The new reality — I don’t like ‘normal’ because ‘normal’ sounds like a steady state — is that we’re going to see more fire and more smoke,” at least in Canada and the western US. “There’s no technofix, no silver bullet or vaccine. We’re in for the long haul. Dante’s circles of hell — we’re probably on level four and we’ve got a way to go.”
This may be the hardest thing to accept about wildfires: that they cannot be beaten, or even well-managed. Even with more prescribed burning, more land management and more care over ignitions, uncontrollable fires are likely to remain. Wildfires are now found even in intact parts of the Amazon rainforest that were once too wet to burn (although most are related to farmers). “We’re moving into a climate regime without any historical precedent,” says Alexander Lees, a reader in biodiversity at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece may see fewer forest fires in future, because their increasingly arid climates will limit the growth of vegetation. Trees will not have enough water and enough time between fires to regrow to their former height. The land will transition to scrub. “The real problem,” says Fernandes, “will be in regions like southern France, or Germany or Poland, because they have biomass. And that biomass will dry out.”
With a placid lake and a few kegs of beer, the fire camp in Poland seemed like a benign setting. But the weather was hot and dry, and already the fire was not conforming to humans’ plans. In one exercise, after the instructor lit the ground deliberately, a group failed to dig a sufficiently rigorous firebreak and the burning spread deep into the soil. Volunteers were putting out the fire late into the night.
The next day, we spoke about how firefighters can become overconfident when they fight fires in the landscapes they know best. We spoke of the risks from damaged trees falling. We marvelled at videos of wildfires and prescribed burns. It struck me that the men and women at the camp were thankfully in for the long haul. Around us, the pine canopies were green. But we all knew that the future was orange.