The Pattern of Wildfires Is Changing, and Experts Are Worried

Climate change is exacerbating conditions conducive to fires, but in the Levant - including Greece, Turkey and Israel - at least we don’t have dry lightning; we have fools and firebugs instead

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Flames rise as a wildfire burns in the village of Limni, on the island of Evia
Flames rise as a wildfire burns in the village of Limni, on the island of EviaCredit: NICOLAS ECONOMOU/ REUTERS
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

As of Sunday, Athens was surrounded by flames. Thousands upon thousands had to be evacuated as fires raged not only around the Greek capital but throughout the country. Also in Turkey, Spain, Italy, northern Eurasia and the United States, and more.

The causes of the fires in Greece are reportedly under investigation, but at least regarding some of the fires raging throughout southern Europe and Turkey, human agency is suspected. Sometimes the culprit isn’t a nudnik tossing a smoldering cigarette butt or leaving a barbecue fire un-doused, but deliberate malice.

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Whatever the cause, be it force majeure, firebug or fool, the impact of climate change has made this the worst fire season the Earth has ever experienced, with conflagrations on most of the continents. The Guardian reported Friday that global fires have emitted 343 megatons of carbon this season.

It’s one of many vicious circles involved in global warming: the worse climate change, the worse the firestorms, the more area they destroy, the more carbon they release, the worse climate change will get. And meanwhile, the behavior of the fires is changing as the physical conditions change.

In and of themselves, extreme heat and drought do not ignite fire: a spark is required. But when vegetation is desiccated by heat and drought, one spark is all it takes and a fire begins, which may spin out of control. In place after place, including heat-stricken Siberia, Canada and California, firefighters describe the fires spreading at speeds they never expected, abetted by the sheer aridity and winds. The fires in Siberia are so fierce that their smoke has reached the North Pole, Gizmodo reports.

The question is where that spark comes from. Israel too has experienced deadly wildfires and will inevitably experience them again. But it doesn’t necessarily have to, experts say.

In Israel, fewer than 1 percent of wildfires are natural: More than 99 percent are caused by human agency, stress Alon Mazar, spokesman for the Israeli Fire and Rescue Authority, and Dr. Shay Levy, head of department of the fire authority’s Wildfire Combat Theory Operation Division. Last week, as fire raged across the Mediterranean, Israel’s fire service also declared most of the country to be an “extreme fire hazard” and banned barbecues or lighting any fire anywhere in nature.

The conditions in Israel’s neighbor to the north, Lebanon, are similar, and conflagrations have been breaking out there too. In late July, a teenager volunteering to help fight the fires in the country’s north died in the effort.

Elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, wildfires can and are being caused by “dry thunderstorms.” These have no rain whatsoever but do feature lightning, which provides that spark, igniting desiccated forests and fields.

A helicopter trying to douse a wildfire outside of Athens last week.Credit: Petros Karadjias/AP

Not so much here. The year 2014 was exceptional because Israel suffered eight fires ignited by lightning, Levy says. But fires by force majeure are not the Israeli norm.

“This isn’t California. We don’t have dry lightning in summer,” Mazar explains. Nor is it common in the Mediterranean basin in general, suggesting that at least some of the fires blazing in Turkey, Greece, Spain and Italy were also caused by people, deliberately or otherwise. “In Israel, 99 percent of fires are caused by people. Israel doesn’t have fires caused by the sun’s rays passing through glass,” he says. “Our wildfires are either caused by hikers lighting a fire to make food, negligence or arson.”

Israel does, of course, experience thunderstorms and lightning in winter. They’re not “dry” and in keeping with the new normal taking shape, if anything the storms tend to be more violent, wetter and protracted. If lightning sets the odd tree alight in winter, the weather should douse it. But now in summer, the land is dried out and the hotter the weather gets, the worse the hazard is, Levy spells out.

Wildfire on the Greek island of Evia

Elsewhere in the world, the spark may come from farmers setting harvested fields alight as they have done since time immemorial,  but now they’re burning down the whole forest. And where other areas have arsonists motivated by the desire to conceal a crime, or by mental illness, malice or simply setting a dumpster afire for the thrill – the Middle East also has terrorism by fire. Take, for example, the incendiary balloons and kites Gazans try to send flying toward Israeli territory, in hope of setting crops and other Israeli assets alight.

As last week rolled to a fiery close, Israel sent a firefighting team and equipment to Greece, The Times of Israel reported. When Israel suffered a deadly blaze on Mount Carmel in 2010, which killed 44, nations around the region and further afar rallied round. In 2016, as a raging blaze threatened Haifa, tens of thousands of people were evacuated and Greece, Turkey and Cyprus all sent help, as did other nations.

“At the regional level, we need to understand that climate change is going to be a challenge to all humanity. We need to cooperate at a global level,” Levy says. “This is being done. We get aid from neighbors and Israel helps a lot of countries” – even Brazil, where he joined an Israeli delegation to the rainforests, in his capacity as an ecologist and expert on wildfires.

The one thing we know for sure is that climate change is creating new normals. Perhaps Israel will become more prone to lightning storms that ignite wildfires; at this stage we don’t know, Levy says. “One of the things in climate change that worries us is that the pattern of blazes will change. The behavior of the fire is changing.”

A helicopter carrying water to combat a wildfire on the island of Sicily, Italy, last week. Credit: ROBERTO VIGLIANISI/REUTERS

Aridification doesn’t dry out only the land: When humidity is lower, fires have more propensity to spread by flying sparks, he says. And the Mediterranean basin climate is a global hot spot for drought and, therefore, fire – still caused by human agency.

Asked what the most hazardous areas in Israel are from the perspective of wildfire, Levy answers: inside the cities and villages, noting the example of Haifa in 2016. Part of the problem in the cities is the counterintuitive reason of greenery. “People want to feel they’re living in a forest. Greenery can mitigate climate change and we need it,” Levy says. “But we need to keep in mind that it’s fuel for fires and has to be managed properly.” Indeed.

The same could be said of the planet as floods, fires and drought bear down. It needs to be managed properly, and if we don’t start now, all this will be just the beginning.

A wildfire ablaze in the northern Israeli city of Haifa five years ago.Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

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