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Learning Lessons from Wildfires, from Texas to Brazil

This post was written with James Anderson, Communications Coordinator at the World Resources Institute.

“This is unprecedented fire behavior. We’ve never seen conditions like this before. Not a single one of our firefighters has ever faced such extreme conditions.”

This statement from the director of the Texas Forest Service makes it clear that the recent wildfires that scorched Texas belong in a new category of disaster. Already, the state’s wildfires this season have consumed 3.6 million acres (an area the size of Connecticut), swallowed over 1,500 homes, and killed at least four people. According to NOAA, the current wildfire is costing more than $1 million per day and exceeds $5 billion in overall damages across the Southwest. These are costs that will be borne by government, business and residents, alike. The recent Texas wildfires are driven by one of the worst droughts on record, while powerful winds associated with tropical storms have fanned the flames. Moreover, many sources say that climate change is creating the conditions for wildfires to increase, particularly in the Southwest United States. NOAA recently reported that Texas had its warmest and driest summer on record. The lethal combination of drought, heat, and intense storms that can exacerbate fires is expected to become more common around the world as climate change intensifies in the coming years. According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, rising temperatures linked to climate change will become the dominant driver of wildfires in the 21st century.

It’s not just Texas that is experiencing these impacts of droughts and wildfires. The Brazilian Amazon has suffered two “once in a century” droughts in the past decade, one in 2005 and the other in 2010. This set the stage for a number of massive wildfires causing $50 million worth of damage and affecting over 400,000 Brazilians.

Brazil’s wildfires also offer a chance to learn from the recent past. In 2005, regional governments in Brazil recognized the mounting problem of climate-related disturbances and responded be developing with a suite of emergency response measures. Officials set up a “situation room” to monitor wildfires via satellite images, coordinate agency responses, and direct fire-fighting resources to high priority areas. The situation room received data from an international research initiative called the Large-Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment (LBA-ECO), which enabled them to direct professional and volunteer firefighters to ever-shifting fire fronts.

Brazil’s proactive response to climate-based disasters can provide valuable lessons for Texas, as the state mobilizes its own emergency operations center, collects wildfire data, and deploys fire-fighting resources. In fact, according to NOAA, fire managers in Texas were better prepared due to advance warnings that allowed them “enough time to assess their fire risk, assets, and resources.”

Together, these experiences are demonstrating the type of innovative approaches that countries – both in the developed and developing world—will need to take as extreme weather and long-term impacts of climate change take hold. Countries are responding by restoring buffering wetlands, investing in new technology to collect climate data, and building community resilience through disaster risk reduction programs targeted at the most vulnerable populations. These and other examples can be found in the forthcoming World Resources Report, Decision-Making is a Changing Climate, published by World Resources Institute, the World Bank, UNDP, and UNEP.

We are just beginning to understand and grapple with how to respond to and prepare for a radically changed world. One thing that is clear is that government officials, both on the national and local levels, will need to make smart and at times difficult choices. The decisions they make today will have a large impact on our ability to respond to future disasters and long-term changes. We already have many of the tools, information, resources, and strategies for the challenges that lie ahead. And if we act wisely, we can be better prepared for our changing world.

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