In-Depth

World on fire

When wildfires swept through the Amazon and Australia, WWF mobilized to help people and wildlife in need.

On August 19, 2019, smoke from fires in the Amazon blew southeast, mingled with low clouds, and turned day into night in São Paulo, Brazil, thousands of miles away. Satellite images confirmed that huge portions of the world’s largest rain forest were burning. In early January 2020, similar images from Australia emerged. Swaths of smoke darkened skies over Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra, drifting over the Pacific as far as Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. Thousands of acres of Australia’s forests were on fire.

“These environmental disasters really made the world pay attention. The damage was extraordinary,” says WWF’s Catherine Blancard, senior director of strategic communications and stewardship.

Many fires burned around the world in 2019–2020, all with different causes, scales, and impacts. But they had one thing in common: Climate change stoked their flames.

  1. Alaska

    In 2019, huge fires in Alaska threatened ecologically significant habitats that are home to species such as caribou and salmon. This in turn threatened the food security, infrastructure, health, and cultural identity of people throughout the Arctic. Climate change contributed to these wildfires, which were fueled by increasing temperatures and dryness.

  2. California

    In recent years, California has experienced some of the worst wildfire seasons in its history. Thanks to drought and high winds, fires are burning longer and more intensely—and across more land—with devastating consequences for communities and nature. Wildfires are a natural part of the American West, but as climate change leads to warmer temperatures, earlier snowmelt, and more intense dry seasons, forests are becoming more and more susceptible to megafires.

  3. The Amazon

    The number of individual fires burning in the Amazon peaked at 30,901 in August 2019, almost three times more than at the same time the year before. Most were human-caused, set to clear land for agriculture and cattle ranching. The fires grew quickly, due to widespread deforestation and land conversion, displacing wildlife and jeopardizing millions of people’s livelihoods.

  4. Democratic Republic of the Congo

    In the Congo Basin, fires are typical at the end of the dry season. While some begin naturally, others are deliberately set by farmers to clear land for agriculture and improve yields. Farmers have used such practices for generations, but rising temperatures, droughts, and logging activities have made forests drier and less dense, and therefore more vulnerable to larger, more frequent, and more damaging fires.

  5. Russia

    Russia has experienced serious problems with forest fires for several years. A majority are human-caused, set accidentally and deliberately, and occur near settlements, agricultural lands, roads, logging sites, and mining sites. As a result, economically valuable forests are frequently damaged, including those used for logging. On average, at least 7 million acres of the country’s forests are destroyed by fires each year.

  6. Australia

    From 2019 to 2020, Australia experienced one of its most catastrophic bushfire seasons ever. Record-high temperatures and unprecedented droughts created tinderbox conditions that led to massive fires, which killed dozens of people, claimed more than 1 billion animals, and incinerated millions of acres of land.

  7. Indonesia

    Most wildfires in Indonesia are set illegally to clear land for cultivating rubber, oil palm, and other valuable commodities, and they can quickly grow out of control. These fires burn not only forests but peat, which can smolder underground at low temperatures, making the fire almost impossible to detect and extremely difficult to extinguish. Peat fires release carbon that’s been stored underground for tens of thousands of years.

Effects of Forest Fires

Livelihoods
Wildfires can burn timber, which negatively affects agricultural production and sustainable forestry—and therefore livelihoods.

Health
It is dangerous to breathe wood smoke, which contains high levels of particulate matter and toxins. For people with existing medical conditions, smoke can trigger serious problems, such as strokes, blood clots, and heart attacks.

Recovery
Post-disaster recovery comes with a considerable price tag. Efforts to rebuild lost livelihoods and infrastructure, restore water quality, and rehabilitate wildlife and habitats can take decades and cost millions.

Climate change
As they burn, fires emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that compromise air quality and contribute to the climate crisis. They also damage forests that would otherwise remove CO2 from the air while sending soot and other aerosols into the atmosphere

Biodiversity
Apart from its effect on a forest’s vegetation, fire can significantly impact wildlife, especially in areas where fire is not a normal part of the ecosystem or where fires burn hotter than the ecosystem can handle. Animals that survive fires face increased stress and the loss of their territory, shelter, and food.

These weren’t the only fires that burned around the world in the past year. Several countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Russia, and the US, experienced raging wildfires. Collectively, the blazes—some started by lightning, others by people—cost lives, destroyed millions of acres, released billions of tons of greenhouse gases, killed countless wild animals, and upset the balance of nature, even in places where fires are a normal part of the ecosystem. Many scientists worried that the impacts of some fires were irreversible, tipping already fragile ecosystems past the ecological point of no return.

The economic impacts on local people were profound, too. “Some rural and Indigenous communities watched their entire livelihoods burn,” says Blancard. “Many depend on sustainable forest products or timber. The fires were devastating on a level that’s hard for outsiders to understand.”

Among all these fires, the ones in the Amazon and Australia stood out. Though burning through different habitats and for different reasons, these blazes were staggering in the scale of destruction they caused, as well as in the outpouring of support they inspired. “People saw images of these iconic places burning,” Blancard says. “They wanted to help.”

As a global organization with a presence in the countries experiencing these disasters, WWF felt compelled to act—and fast. Emergency funds were quickly established to bring desperately needed resources—food, water, medical supplies, firefighting equipment—to the people and wildlife affected by the smoke and flames. And the help flooded in.

In a short time, thanks to generous donations from more than 3,300 people, roughly 30 companies, and several foundations, WWF-US raised nearly $2 million for the Emergency Amazon Fire Fund. And every cent went directly to partners and local communities on the front lines in Brazil and Bolivia. 

Stephen J. Luczo, a former WWF-US Board and current National Council member, and his wife, Agatha, were among the campaign’s first contributors—and among a small group of early partners who supported WWF’s capacity to coordinate our response, allowing all other donations to go where they were needed most. “The Amazon is one of the world’s last great frontiers,” says Luczo, “home to millions of species and critical to regulating our planet’s oxygen and carbon cycles. It was unfathomable that WWF should sit on the sidelines in the face of this crisis—and we wanted to offer our strong support to WWF.”

WWF-US Board member Matthew Harris also answered the call with support from the Bedari Foundation, which he founded. “These were environmental crises of epic proportions,” he says, “and WWF was uniquely positioned to harness its field expertise and powerful network to meet the moment, mobilizing fundraising and technical resources on the ground.”

A few months later, WWF-Australia set up the Australian Wildlife and Nature Recovery Fund and issued a call for US$20 million in emergency donations. Scores of people around the world contributed, surpassing that goal within months. WWF-US channeled more than $6.8 million to the fund, which is addressing the urgent needs of people and wildlife, supporting the recovery of critical habitats, and helping Australia prepare for future emergencies.

Wildfires in Australia dwarfed other major wildfires

As of January 2020, they covered around 12 million acres, roughly the size of Maryland.

2

MILLION ACRES

California wildfires 2018

 

6.7

MILLION ACRES

Siberian wildfires 2019

 

12

MILLION ACRES

Australian wildfires 2019

Source: Statista

Smoke from Alaska’s Hess Creek fire rises above the horizon.

Aftermath of forest fires in Borneo, Indonesia.

Aid for the Amazon

The Amazon Emergency Fund Provided

  • Firefighting equipment, gloves, protective goggles, chainsaws, water pumps, and hoses
  • Food, water, and medical supplies for affected communities
  • Communication radios and GPS
  • Car rentals and fuel to deliver supplies to remote areas
  • Equipment and training to monitor ongoing fires and alert those at risk

In Brazil and Bolivia, the fires were primarily driven by deforestation and unsustainable land-use practices, including slash-and-burn methods used to create agricultural lands. In Bolivia, droughts also exacerbated the problem. As the fires spread, they threatened peoples’ health and local economies while endangering countless animals and plants not adapted to survive large fires.

WWF staff on the ground kept the organization’s network up to date about the infernos’ sweeping social, economic, and health impacts. They focused on communicating scientific facts and what people living through the fires were saying. “That allowed us to ignore any sensationalism,” Blancard explains. “It was beautiful to see our staff collaborating to figure out what really mattered—how we could make the greatest difference and deliver help where it was needed most.”

In the Amazon, this was often right at the fire’s edge, where thousands of Indigenous people were battling blazes with no firefighting or safety equipment—and in some cases no water or medicines. In Bolivia’s Chiquitano Dry Forest region alone, 161 families were forced to evacuate due to compromised air quality. The fires also caused widespread damage to forests containing valuable timber species that are integral to local economies and left many natural water sources contaminated.

“The fire cornered the entire community. There was a lot of smoke, and we couldn’t see well. The fire kept going, as if wanting to devour us,” says Lucas Ariqui, treasurer of the Palmarito La Frontera Indigenous Community in Bolivia, one of the places where WWF provided relief.

Within days of the launch of WWF’s Emergency Amazon Fire Fund, local communities and key partners—such as Brazil’s Vitória Amazônica Foundation—were able to purchase critical firefighting equipment as well as vehicles and fuel to transport those vital supplies to the most impacted communities. The funds also enabled local community-led fire brigades to carry out trainings on fire prevention and management.

A fire rages in Humaitá, Brazil

Huge swaths of forests burned during Australia’s last bushfire season, which experts say was exacerbated by drought.

Rescuers down under

In Australia, immediate needs differed from those in the Amazon. In 2019 and 2020, seasonal fires burned bigger and more intensely than usual, tearing through massive expanses of native bushland, forests, and national parks. At least 33 people were killed and more than 3,000 homes destroyed. An estimated 1.25 billion animals died in the fires, among them thousands of koalas—a species already in serious decline due to habitat loss.

Many animals that didn’t perish were badly burned and dehydrated. WWF directed emergency funds to wildlife rescue organizations to help locate as many of these animals as possible and give them urgent care. In Victoria, for example, 25 veterinary staff from Zoos Victoria were deployed to care for wildlife recovered from fire zones. Within 40 days, 215 animals—from sugar gliders to lace monitors—were rescued and taken to triage centers; 139 of them were koalas.

“Our partnership with organizations like WWF is what keeps us going,” says Darren Maier, CEO of animal rescue organization RSPCA Queensland, which at times last year was bringing in as many as 80 animals a day. “Without WWF and the community’s support, we wouldn’t be able to do the work we do, and that would be a real tragedy for the animals.” 

Thousands of fires burned across the Amazon rain forest in 2019, including this one in Porto Velho, Brazil.

A firetruck rushes to provide aid in Humaitá, Brazil.

Truth and consequences

When the last blazes were finally extinguished, the Brazilian Amazon had lost 17 million acres of forest. In Bolivia, 12 million acres of land had burned. And by the time the fires were out in Australia, in late February 2020, over 30 million acres had been incinerated.

While climate scientists warn that fires will continue to increase in frequency and intensity, WWF and our many partners are planning ahead, supporting ongoing projects to help foster more resilient ecosystems and ensure that future blazes are less devastating to people and wildlife.

With the 2020 fire season already under way in some places, there’s no doubt: More destructive wildfires are on the horizon. But while climate scientists warn that fires will continue to increase in frequency and intensity as our planet warms, WWF and our many partners are planning ahead, supporting ongoing projects to help foster more resilient ecosystems and ensure that future blazes are less devastating to people and wildlife.

In the long term, we will continue to work with Indigenous communities and local organizations to rethink destructive landuse practices in the Amazon and decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. Efforts in Australia, meanwhile, will address the huge loss of forest habitat through climate-smart approaches that restore and protect bushland and help improve land management strategies and fire responses.

As our attention shifts from emergency responses to fully assessing the social, economic, and environmental impacts of out-of-control fires, expert Anita van Breda emphasizes one thing: “We need to keep nature in mind.” Van Breda, who is senior director for environment and disaster management at WWF-US, adds: “For example, we may need to adapt our restoration efforts to be more resilient and plant trees that are better able to survive in a changing climate. Disasters challenge us to think differently about what comes next, to factor in climate science and our capacity to adapt, and to ensure people and nature are better prepared.”

“Building resilience to future shocks in these ecosystems is going to take time; meanwhile, people and ecosystems need help now,” adds Catherine Blancard. “These are challenges that no one institution can solve alone. During the last fire season, we saw a global desire for on-the-ground action and the power of our network to react quickly. As an organization, we’re well-equipped to respond to these kinds of crises—and we’re figuring out how best to do that.”

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