4.2 The United Nations recommendations for preparing for future wildfires
In 2022 the United Nations Environment Programme published a report making recommendations for how the environmental challenge of wildfires should be prepared for in the future (UNEP, 2022). The report acknowledged that it is impossible to eradicate the risk of wildfires and undesirable to entirely eliminate wildfires due to their ecological benefits. Nevertheless, emphasising the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, it made a series of recommendations for how wildfires and the risk of wildfires could be better managed. These recommendations were grounded in three principles. Firstly, that prevention is more effective than response. Secondly, that policies and practices should be regionally specific and tailored to locations’ specific conditions. Thirdly, that lessons should be learnt from Indigenous peoples who have historically effectively coexisted with fire-prone ecosystems and have used fire as tool for sustainable land-management (Huffman, 2013).
Read through the United Nations’ nine recommendations for how the international community could more effectively prepare for and respond to the environmental challenge of wildfires published in the UNEP report Spreading Like Wildfire.
Once you have read through all the recommendations, select three recommendations that you think are particularly important. Explain why you have chosen these three recommendations with specific reference to wildfires as entanglements of physical, ecological, and human processes.
United Nations’ nine recommendations
Recognise and respond to the impact of climate change on the prevalence and behaviour of wildfires
Climate change is increasing the likelihood of fire occurrence in many regions. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report indicates that weather conducive to wildfires (“fire weather” – hot, dry, and windy) is becoming more frequent in some regions and will continue to increase with higher levels of global warming. Countries must meet and exceed their commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce global warming and the prevalence and behaviour of wildfires globally. This will, in turn, reduce the social, economic, and ecological impact of wildfires.
Understand wildfire behaviour and improve fuel management and wildfire monitoring
There is a critical need to better understand the behaviour of wildfires in different ecosystems and under a changing climate. This knowledge will support consistent fire data collection and analysis across organisations and countries, thereby improving the management of wildfire fuels, facilitating ignition prevention, and reducing gaps in fire management preparedness and response. Identifying how existing wildfire management practices encourage or discourage harmful wildfires can help improve decision-making and management systems. Improved data collection and analysis will also help monitor changes in fire activity, assess ecosystem response to changing fire regimes, and enhance climate models.
Promote an integrated fire management approach
While fire is a natural ecological process, changes to our climate and land-use are contributing to more wildfires. Dealing effectively with the increase in wildfires requires policies and incentives that promote integrated fire management approaches. Achieving and sustaining adaptive land and fire management requires a well-designed and balanced combination of policies, a clear legal framework, and incentives that encourage appropriate land and fire use. These approaches maintain and restore healthy ecosystems while meeting the social, economic, and health needs of human populations.
Support and integrate Indigenous, traditional, and contemporary fire management practices into policy
Globally, there is growing recognition of the important role that Indigenous and traditional knowledge and experience can play in informing land management practices that assist in the prevention and mitigation of wildfires. Indigenous and traditional knowledge of land management in many regions – particularly the use of fire to manage fuel, including for wildfire mitigation – can be an effective way of reducing hazard. It can also ensure that biodiversity, and cultural (including understanding traditional gender roles that can govern burning activities) and ecological values are respected, as well as create livelihood opportunities. Recognising and supporting the inclusion of Indigenous and traditional fire knowledge within government policy, practice, and programmes can have multiple benefits (e.g., vegetation management, cultural, spiritual, social, economic, health and well-being benefits, and political-self-determination).
Strengthen international and regional cooperation on wildfires
The greatest potential for coherent and consistent improvement in fire management is through continued international interaction and exchange, joint problem solving, and sharing experiences in wildfire management and research. Existing networks and working groups tend to be focused on fire response. These efforts should be encouraged and supported, while expanding their focus to include cooperative work around mitigating fire risk before wildfires occur and building back better following a wildfire. Development of an international standard for wildfire management will facilitate international cooperation and help all wildfire-prone countries build capacity for both domestic application and international assistance.
Rebalance investments spent on reactive suppression to proactive wildfire mitigation and management
Wildfires become uncontainable when they exceed the limits of suppression. Given the current limitations of fire suppression and a future predicted to have longer fire seasons and more severe fires due to increasingly worse fire weather conditions, making targeted investments in preparedness measures now will yield significant benefits. Wildfire risk reduction activities represent a sound return on investment as they reduce the potential impacts of wildfires. In the long term, they will be more cost effective than relying on reactive firefighting and post-disaster recovery efforts. Auxiliary risk management strategies should also be in place to reduce the likelihood of adverse fire impacts arising.
Empower communities and local authorities
Enabling communities and local authorities in wildfire-prone areas to understand and accept the residual risk of wildfires will strengthen coordination of key stakeholders and build capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from wildfires. Activities include risk reduction (at the dwelling, locally, and regionally), infrastructure hardening, evacuation planning, air quality alerts, and social and infrastructure recovery and rebuilding. Key stakeholders need to be involved throughout the fire management process. This includes involving women and men from local communities so that local needs, concerns, and potential barriers to action can be addressed, and a common understanding and long-term vision for how to live with fire is developed, shared, understood, and acted upon.
Improve firefighter safety
While firefighting is an essential component of fire management at all scales, the safety and long-term health of firefighters is paramount. The risk of harm to both female and male firefighters, before, during, and after operations must be minimised. Fire management bodies must take measures to ensure safe work practices in all aspects of firefighting, ensuring that they understand and reduce the risks of smoke inhalation, minimise the potential for life-threatening entrapments (i.e., burn-overs), and provide firefighters with access to adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery between shifts. In many instances, internationally agreed standards for assuring effectiveness of firefighting efforts may also act to minimise the exposure of firefighters to life-threatening situations.
Promote the collection of data and information on the gender dimension of wildfires
Available research indicates that women and men have different approaches to wildfires, including risk perception and decision making. The collection of sex-disaggregated data will help to identify patterns for further analysis, including national, regional, or global trends. Understanding gendered risk perceptions can help policymakers develop more effective and robust approaches to wildfire management and improve safety for all members of society. Improving gendered knowledge extends to helping firefighting become a more inclusive activity. Women firefighters face various challenges ranging from gender discrimination and sexual harassment to ill-designed equipment and protective clothing that puts them at greater risk of injury.
(Taken from UNEP, 2022)
Your answers may have included some of the following points:
Reflecting on how wildfires are entanglements of physical, ecological, and human processes you may have chosen recommendations that respond to the three different aspects of this entanglement. This could have included a recommendation that positions wildfires within the broader context of climate change as an overarching environmental challenge, a recommendation that focuses on managing the ‘fuel’ needed to allow fires to start and spread, and a people-focused recommendation designed to develop more fire-aware human behaviour before, during, and after fires.
The specific recommendations you chose are likely to reflect the extent to which you think it is important to prevent fires, rather than develop more effective ways to respond to them. You may also have considered the extent to which emphasis should be placed on regional, national, or connected international approaches to wildfire management.
Ultimately, all of the recommendations made in the United Nation Environment Programme report are important. Indeed, the variety of approaches to wildfires within the report once again emphasises the importance of understanding wildfire as an entanglement of physical, ecological, and social processes. It is only once wildfires are approached as environmental and social events that effective steps can be taken to manage and prepare for them.