BBC has used satellite data to assess the severity of fires in Brazil, Indonesia, Siberia and Central Africa. It has concluded that although fires in 2019 have wrought significant damage to the environment, they have been worse in the past. More than 35,000 fires have been detected so far in 2019 in East Asia spreading smoky haze to Malaysia, Singapore, the south of Thailand and the Philippines, causing a significant deterioration in air quality. But this is substantially fewer than many other years including those, such as 2015, exacerbated by the El Nino effect which brought unusually dry weather.
In Indonesia, peatland is set alight by corporations and small-scale farmers to clear land for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, and can spread into protected forested areas. The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade. Old palm trees on plantations that no longer bear fruit are often set on fire to be replaced by younger ones.
The number of recorded fires in Brazil rose significantly in 2019, but there were more in most years in the period 2002 to 2010. There is a similar pattern for other areas of Brazilian forestry that are not part of the Amazon basin. For 2019, we have data up to the end of August, and the overall area burnt for those eight months is 45,000 sq km. This has already surpassed all the area burnt in 2018, but appears unlikely to reach the peaks seen in the previous decade… “Fire signals an end of the deforestation process,” says Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist on the Amazon rainforest. “Those large giant rainforest trees that we often associate with the Amazon are chopped down, left to dry and then fire is used as a tool for clearing the land to prepare for pasture, crops or even illegal mining.”
The environmental campaign group Greenpeace has called the fires that have engulfed the Russian region of Siberia this year one of the worst outbreaks this century. The cloud of smoke generated was reported to have been the size of all the European Union countries combined. Forest fires in Siberia are common in the summer, but record-breaking temperatures and strong winds have made the situation particularly bad. Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency says more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km) have been affected since the start of 2019, already exceeding the total of 8.6 million for the whole of 2018…. Drawing on data for the number of fires, it is clear that there have been other bad years, notably in 2003.
Nasa satellites have identified thousands of fires in Angola, Zambia and DR Congo.However, these have not reached record levels. “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the fires we’re seeing in Africa are worse than we’ve seen in recent years,” Denis McClean, of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency, told the BBC. According to data analysed by Global Forest Watch, fires in DR Congo and Zambia are just above average for the season but have been higher in past years. In Angola, however, fires have been reported at close to record levels this year.
Some have drawn comparisons with the situation in the Amazon, but the fires in sub-Saharan Africa are different. Take DR Congo – most fires are being recorded in settled parts of the country’s southern, drier forest and savannah areas, and so far not in tropical rainforest. Experts say it is difficult to know what is causing these fires, which are seasonal. Many are likely to be on grassland, woodland or savannah in poor farming communities. “Fires are very important landscape management tools and are used to clear land for planting crops,” says Lauren Williams, a specialist in Central and West African forests at the World Resources Institute.
Excerpts from Jack Goodman & Olga RobinsonIndonesia haze: Are forest fires as bad as they seem?, BBC, Sept. 19, 2019. For more details and data see BBC