Disasters Explained: Wildfires

Wildfires burn millions of acres of land every year globally. Find out more about what they are and how they occur.

Wildfires are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as natural disasters.

However, only 10-15% of them happen on their own in nature.

Most wildfires are caused by humans, and the most common causes are unattended camp and debris fires, discarded cigarettes, and arson. (source: National Geographic).

Find out more about wildfires, their link with climate change, where they occur and more.

What is a wildfire?

A wildfire, wildland fire or rural fire is an uncontrolled fire in an area of vegetation happening in rural areas.

Wildfires can rapidly burn millions of acres of land and can destroy everything—trees, homes, animals and humans in their paths. Families and whole communities that live in rural, wildfire-prone areas are in danger of losing their homes and having to flee for their own safety. Wildfires also have major health hazards, especially for people with existing breathing problems.

Breathing fire smoke can cause respiratory issues and coughing, wheezing and bronchitis. Another threat is carbon monoxide (CO). Inhaling CO reduces oxygen delivery to the body’s organs and tissues and can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness and even premature death.

Source: American Lung Association

A wildfire close to a road

Does climate change cause more wildfires?

A firefighter in a forest fire

Climate change increases the occurrence and severity of wildfires.

Hotter weather, a result of climate change, makes forests and vegetation drier and therefore more prone to burning.

As a result, the average wildfire season is three and a half months longer than it was a few decades ago, and the number of annual large fires in the West has tripled.

As rising greenhouse gas emissions are increasing droughts and heat, more catastrophic wildfires are expected in the years to come, especially with the fire seasons getting longer.

Source: Environmental Defense Fund, New Scientist

Climate change and disasters

What is the difference between a wildfire and a bushfire?

Wildfire is the general umbrella term, whereas the term bushfire refers to an uncontrollable fire in bushland.

In simple terms, you can specifically refer to the type of wildfire depending on the vegetation present.

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Why disasters like wildfires are not 'natural'

Wildfires and other extreme events are not ‘natural disasters’.

The term ‘natural disaster’, despite being widely used, is problematic.

Using the word ‘natural’ ignores the role that humans have in the disaster, assuming that the event would happen anyway and there is little that we can do to prevent it.

It’s actually the decisions we make that create a disaster.

Factors like living conditions and poverty, government capacity to prepare and respond, as well as the process of rebuilding and how efficient that would be, are all factors that will define whether a disaster occurs as a result of the natural hazard.

Hazards are inevitable – but the impact they have on society is not.

Read more about the importance of avoiding the term ‘natural disaster’.

Why disasters are not natural

Where do wildfires occur?

Australia is very prone to menacing bushfires.

The country’s climate is generally hot, dry and susceptible to drought.

Bushfires tend to occur when light and heavy fuel loads in Eucalypt forests have dried out, usually following periods of low rainfall.

But wildfires are on the increase in other parts of the world too.

In fact by 2030, wildfires are predicted to increase by 14% (source: UN). So far this year, there have been almost four times as many wildfires in Europe than average.

houses burning on a hill

Europe Wildfires 2022

In July 2022, wildfires ripped across Europe during one of the worst heatwaves on record.

In Spain, Portugal, Greece and France, wildfires burnt out of control. Many other European countries reported fires too.

Europe’s 2022 heatwave is further evidence of climate change. As our planet heats up, heatwaves have become more frequent and more extreme.

Learn more about heatwaves here.

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Sources: CNN, National Geographic, Environmental Defense Fund, American Lung Association