From Europe’s largest wildfire to Canada’s worst and the deadliest U.S. forest fire in over a century, summer 2023 was unparalleled. Devastating fires occurred not just in these three countries but also in others, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Tunisia, Iran, and more.
While wildfires are a natural component of many ecosystems, recent data reveals an alarming trend. Forest fires are becoming more frequent, ravaging nearly double the tree cover compared to 20 years ago. This shift in forest dynamics carries grave implications, such as potentially changing boreal forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources. This article examines the various causes cited for these fires in summer 2023.
Greece’s Wildfire: Europe’s Biggest Blaze
Greece reported more than 80 wildfires, 20 deaths, numerous injuries, and approximately 810 square kilometers burnt. From evacuating 2,000 residents on Rhodes Island in July to the record-breaking fire at the close of August, Greece’s summer was anything but usual.
Multiple fires were reported throughout the summer. The fire that began on August 19th stands out as the most massive recorded in Europe since the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) started its database in 2000. Originating near Alexandroupolis, drought conditions rapidly exacerbated the Evros blaze.
Amidst the immediate fallout, questions arise: What ignited this catastrophe? Authorities point to human activities, such as outdoor barbecues, leading to many arrests. However, dry conditions effectively fueled these flames. Subsequent to the fires, even as containment efforts progressed, the scorched landscape posed another threat. Experts sounded alarms on potential flooding – a warning that proved prescient when September’s rains caused fatal floods and at least 7 people died.
Canada’s Wildfire: Fanned by Climate Change
While Greece’s wildfire narrative was harrowing, Canada’s was on an entirely different scale. The land consumed by Canadian wildfires surpassed Greece’s total land area. The 2023 season set a new record for Canada, burning more terrain than any prior fire season. This year also surpassed any previous North American fire season.
Regions from Alberta to Quebec felt the heat. Canada’s worst wildfire season also impacted its southern neighbor. States like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey grappled with hazardous pollution levels, leading to event cancellations and health concerns.
So, what ignited Canada’s numerous fires? Climate change seems to be a factor. Officials note that this year’s intense fires correlate with drought conditions and rising temperatures. Most Canadian regions experienced extraordinary dryness. A lower-than-average snowfall in Atlantic Canada was succeeded by an exceptionally arid April.
Hawaii’s Forest Fire: Human, Drought and Climate Change
The U.S. wasn’t spared from the flames, with the National Fire Protection Association highlighting the Lahaina fire as one of the deadliest in over a century.
During the 2023 season, wildfires claimed at least 106 lives on Hawaii’s Maui and Big Island, displacing residents, tourists, and decimating the ancient city of Lahaina. Witnesses compared Hawaii’s ordeal to Greece’s. Initial flames weren’t vast, but factors like wind and drought intensified the situation.
Wildfire in the US is not something new, and as statistics show, the one reason that is happening the most is human cause. However, the condition that climate change created is serving a crucial role in making it worse and spreading fast.
Is Climate Change a Wildfire Culprit?
Increasing fire activity can be attributed in part to climate change. As the earth warms, extreme heat waves are becoming commonplace, occurring five times more frequently than 150 years ago. While data show that a majority of forest fires result from human activities (between 85 to 90 percent are caused by humans), like barbecuing or discarding cigarettes, the dry conditions serve as the catalyst.
Under such circumstances, vibrant green foliage dries out, transforming into combustible material. Add strong winds and elevated temperatures to the mix, and a mere spark can lead to expansive devastation.