Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2018.


A landmark U.N. report on climate change says the risk of wildfires will remain high, even if the most ambitious goals are met


In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a comprehensive, landmark report on the impact of global warming in the coming years. The report paints a grim picture of a world plagued by more wildfires, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters. For wildfires in particular, the report indicates that the global risk will remain high even if the most ambitious climate change goals are met.

“Projected impacts on forests as [the] climate changes include increases in the intensity of storms, wildfires and pest outbreaks,” the report reads, “potentially leading to forest dieback. … Warmer and drier conditions particularly facilitate fire, drought and insect disturbances, while warmer and wetter conditions increase disturbances from wind and pathogens.”

In 2016, the U.N.’s Paris Agreement set a long-term goal of keeping average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius over average global temperatures in pre-industrial times. Currently, average global temperatures have increased by about 1 degree. If temperatures can be kept from rising more than 1.5 degrees, the Paris Agreement contended, the impact of global warming would be far less severe than if they rose 2 degrees.

While the new IPCC report corroborates that assessment in many ways—it says the half-a-degree difference could significantly reduce flooding in certain coastal areas and prevent corals from being eradicated in the world’s oceans, for instance—for wildfires, the half a degree might make less of a difference. Researchers deemed the global risk of wildfires as “high” whether the world warms by 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees. The regions where the risk of wildfires is particularly high include the United States, Canada, and the Mediterranean, the report says.

For Michele Steinberg, director of NFPA’s Wildfire Division, the news was nothing short of obvious.

“We’ve spent decades now creating this problem,” she said. “The impacts of climate change constitute a systemic global problem, and this report confirms what many fire and land management experts already knew.”

Steinberg hopes the research will help convince more safety specialists at the regional level to start planning for wildfires based on these predicted increased risks, and not based on what has traditionally been an area’s experience with wildfire. “We know that looking at the past, looking at 100 years of weather tracking, doesn’t mean much anymore,” she said. “We need to look at these predicted future conditions to start planning and implementing strategies for land management, watershed protection, building, forestry, and so on.”

A changing wildfire dynamic exists around the world. In Sweden, the amount of land burned in wildfires from January through August this year was more than 12 times greater than the average over the past 10 years. Fires were reported burning as far north as the Arctic Circle, an area particularly prone to the impact of climate change. Similar events transpired in the United Kingdom, which saw almost six times its normal amount of acres burned in wildfires from January through August.

“It’s been crazy,” Steinberg said, noting wildfires in the U.K., Sweden, and Portugal as she spoke with NFPA Journal in October. “Experts have been watching this, and we know this isn’t going to get any better.”

London, England

London fire chief says she wouldn’t change Grenfell response

The head of the London Fire Brigade told investigators in September that she wouldn’t change a single thing about the fire service response to the deadly Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, according to a BBC News article.

“I think without exception my … staff performed in a fantastic way given the incredible circumstances they were faced with,” Dany Cotton said at the government inquiry into the blaze. “They were pulled into an untenable situation, a building that behaved in a way it should never have done, that put the residents’ lives at risk.”

The Grenfell Tower fire was largely blamed on unsafe construction methods. As part of a 2015–16 renovation project on the 24-story apartment building, built in 1974, the exterior walls of the structure had been retrofitted with what was widely reported as a combination of aluminum composite panels containing polyethylene plastic and foam insulation board, both considered to be combustible. When a fire on the fourth floor of the building reached those combustible wall assembly materials, flames quickly raced up and around the sides of the building. More than 70 people died.

Cotton also told investigators in September that her department had never trained for a fire involving combustible cladding, because she “wouldn’t expect us to be developing training or a response to something that simply shouldn’t happen.”

But the harsh reality is the use of combustible materials in exterior wall components like cladding does happen—and with some regularity—around the globe.

An NFPA Journal investigative report published after the Grenfell blaze found that conditions similar to the ones that caused flames to spread rapidly up and around Grenfell Tower exist in hundreds, if not thousands, of other buildings worldwide, many of them high-rises. Read the article, “London Calling,” and explore all of NFPA’s tools related to the fire hazards of combustible exterior wall components online.

Palu, Indonesia

Earthquake and tsunami kill scores in Indonesia

On September 28, an earthquake and tsunami struck the island city of Palu in Indonesia, killing thousands in one of the deadliest natural disasters in recent years. As of mid-October, the official death toll stood at nearly 2,000, but some 5,000 people remained missing and were presumed dead.

In interviews with NPR, residents of the devastated region described surreal scenes of the earth churning like a blender, swallowing homes and entombing residents in an instant. “The asphalt broke up under my feet,” a 32-year-old man who lost his wife and two young daughters in the disaster told NPR. “I fell, got trapped in the cracks, and lost hold of my 5-year-old girl. The last time I saw my wife and children, they were covered in earth.”

Creating a robust regulatory system, in which building codes account for risks like earthquakes, is one of the best ways to mitigate loss during natural disasters, building safety experts say.

But in Indonesia, like most developing nations, such a system is lacking. According to research from the World Bank Group, as much as 80 percent of the built environment in countries like Indonesia is “informal”—in other words, built without safety codes. The organization’s Building Regulation for Resilience Program aims to change that through more research and education. The program is highlighted in a feature article in this issue, “Sound the Alarm,”.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images