WWF report: Increasing forest fires are a crisis for the planet

Posted on 27 August 2020
Forest on fire in Roraima state Brazil
© Nigel Dickinson / WWF
A crisis is taking place in forests, where the latest fire seasons have been raging with unprecedented ferocity, from the Amazon to the Arctic. In April 2020, the number of fire alerts across the globe were up by 13% compared to last year – which was already a record year for fires. Persistent hotter and drier weather due to climate change, and other human factors such as land conversion for agriculture and poor forest management are the main drivers behind the increase, a new WWF report says.
The report singles out several countries in Latin America. As of August 23, 2020, in the Brazilian Amazon alone, fire alerts for this year were more than 45% higher than the ten-year average and 35% higher than the most recent three-year average. Increasing deforestation is likely to result in intense fires in the Amazon. In Bolivia, deforestation drove a 35% increase in fires from January to April 2020 compared to last year. Meanwhile, in Colombia, deforestation in the first four months of 2020 suggests the area burnt could surpass the figures for all of 2019, reversing a trend of continued falls in recent decades.
Climate change and wildfires mutually reinforce each other, and the fires burning today in many parts of the world are bigger, more intense, and last longer than they used to. If current trends continue, there will be devastating long-term consequences on people, wildlife and the climate. WWF's report, produced in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), takes a deeper dive into fire trends and what they mean for people and the planet, and sets out recommendations to address the key causes.
Wildfires affect all biomes, from forests and savannahs to grasslands and tundra. Even though forests make up only 10% of the total area burned, their higher carbon storage  capacity means that they are responsible for one quarter of all fire-related carbon dioxide emissions. An increasing share of wildfires are due to human activity, intentional or otherwise. In some tropical and subtropical regions, forest fires are mostly intentionally set for land-use change, clearing and preparing new areas for cultivation.
The consequences
To have any chance of restricting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C in line with the Paris Agreement, more needs to be done to cut carbon emissions from forest fires. But that’s not all: wildfires also have severe consequences for human health and wellbeing, biodiversity, and economies around the world. The effects of wildfires linger long after the flames die down, hitting public health and wellbeing far into the future. Every year, there are an estimated 340,000 premature deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular issues attributed to wildfire smoke. The increasing frequency and severity of wildfires pose a growing threat to biodiversity globally. Individuals, companies and public authorities bear great economic costs due to fires.
Urgent action
Fires in 2020 are on course to be worse than in 2019 – and fires are a critical global issue that needs urgent global solutions.
We need to:
Raise climate change ambition worldwide
Improve Paris Agreement accounting for emissions from ‘non-anthropogenic’ fires
Reinvest in prevention
Halt deforestation
Reinstate fire where it has been excluded from key landscapes
Clarify governance, coordinate policies
Use a science-based approach to risk and interventions
Bring businesses on board
Come together to fight forest fires
Wat is WWF doing globally?
  • We mobilised to help people and wildlife in need during the recent Australian and Amazon fires.
  • In Brazil, WWF provides both immediate support for fighting fires and works continuously against deforestation in the Amazon.
  • In Colombia, WWF supports "Friends of the Forest" - a group of community leaders working to prevent wildfires around the Chiribiquete National Park, one of the Colombian Amazon most threatened areas by deforestation.
  • We're working to support wildlife in wildfire-affected areas in Ukraine and reduce the risks of future fires. 
  • WWF-Bolivia established a forest fire emergency program and has launched a petition calling for action. Support the campaign.
Forest on fire in Roraima state Brazil
© Nigel Dickinson / WWF Enlarge