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Unquantifiable damage caused by wildfires

Wildfire in Santa Barbara, California, USA in 2008
(Edward Vielmetti/Flickr)

Wildfires may not get the attention of earthquakes and cyclones but their destructive potential is considerable and warrants further attention, experts warn.

“We are seeing more and more really big fires,” Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) forestry officer Pieter van Lierop told IRIN. “The control of these fires has become an issue of high importance, not only because of the increasing number of casualties and amounts of area burned, but also because of its link with other global issues, like climate change.”

Up to 56 million hectares of land are destroyed by wildfires each year in Asia, according to FAO.

Since 1970 wildfires have caused an estimated US$11.6 billion in economic damage in Asia, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Disaster Database EM-DAT.

Densely populated areas and widespread use of large-scale agricultural fires to clear land for farming make the region particularly vulnerable to such threats, van Lierop said.

But there is more. “The impact of… anthropogenic [man-made] impacts of increased population growth and higher demand for new agricultural areas, aggravates the risk of extended wildfire situations,” said Johann Goldammer, director of the German Research Institute, the Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GFMC). 

Asia is already the continent most at risk of natural disasters

Health hazards

The combination of land conversion fires and unusually dry conditions from El Niño droughts, led to the outbreak of wildfires throughout Southeast Asia in 1997-1998, forcing some 200 million people in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to seek medical assistance

Following the fires, the number of cases of outpatient visits with respiratory diseases in Malaysia tripled, and the number of cases of pneumonia increased up to 25 times in Borneo’s southeastern province of Kalimantan, Indonesia, according to WHO.

Health impacts from vegetation fires, which are major contributors of toxic pollutants, can surface long after the flames have been doused. Released toxins can lead to eye and respiratory irritation, bronchitis, asthma and even death, according to WHO.

But the true extent of fire’s damage is still unknown. “How can we quantify the long-term damage to local population health due to the impact of smoke pollution, the number of people admitted to hospital, as well as the environmental damage, which hurts bio-diversity and soil fertility?” said Goldammer.

“The effect of wildfires goes beyond human deaths or economic statistics,” he added. “People die from things other than fire directly. We need a systematic classification of human impact.”

Poor visibility resulting from these fires was also responsible for the crash of a commercial airliner in North Sumatra in 1997, which killed all of the 200-plus passengers on board. 


The environmental losses from the 1997-98 Indonesian fires are virtually impossible to evaluate, said the International Development Research Council of Canada. The fires destroyed some of the oldest and most biologically diverse rainforests in the world, on the western island of Sumatra, and Borneo’s Kalimantan Province, and led to the death of a large percentage of Indonesia's wild orangutans and the possible extinction of still unknown species.


Food production is taking a hit. The unprecedented heat wave that struck Russia in July 2010 sparked wildfires that killed more than 50 people and destroyed more than 14 million hectares of land, sending wheat prices skyrocketing, according to the Russian-based Sukachev Institute for Forests

In August, FAO launched the Global Fire Information Management System (GFIMS), which uses US National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) satellite imagery to track and detect fires around the world.

Developed in collaboration with the US-based University of Maryland, the GFIMS sends at no cost multilingual email alerts detailing where fires are burning around the world.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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