The Impact of Climate Change on Wildfires in Mediterranean Climates

The Impact of Climate Change on Wildfires in Mediterranean Climates

A city-wide order to remain indoors is seen on your local news. You only make essential trips and have to carry a mask with you. Your family and friends are all worried about the fate of their community. While this is something that we were all introduced to due to the COVID-19  pandemic, this is something many people in warm climates have already adapted to. These are some of the consequences of wildfires in California and Greece. Wildfires are unanticipated fires occurring in foliage due to extreme heat, lightning strikes, or other means of combustion. Wildfires already occur naturally in the hottest parts of the year in areas with Mediterranean climates such as California and Greece, where the ground may amplify any heat onto nearby dead foliage. Wildfire activity is particularly concentrated in the mountainous regions of these two places since they have a wet season that produces a large amount of foliage which then dies off during the hot/dry season. Climate change is amplifying the size, magnitude, and duration of wildfires by making the wet season shorter and more intense and the dry season longer. The occurrence of wildfires in the United States, specifically in western regions, has doubled between 1984 and 2015. [1] Wildfires are directly correlated with drought and prolonged heat conditions. But this is not the only reason that wildfires can occur, as more than 80 percent are caused by human activities. [1] Many of these have to do with maltreatment of the area, or continued erosion of the land so that it does not absorb water and is naturally prone to drought. Historically, this might be linked to the overuse of land due to agriculture, in excessive tilling and slash-and-burn processes.

There are many ways that this crisis affects both California and Greece. In Greece, wildfires are still prevalent, but they occur less often and are generally less severe than they are in California. The rainy season of both areas typically occurs during the Winter and early Spring due to their Mediterranean climates, with the snow of continental climates being replaced with rain. During this amount of time, there is usually heavy rainfall and cooler temperatures that thoroughly irrigate the ground. However, more extreme weather patterns are arising due to emission-induced climate changes, leading to a lack of natural irrigation. This lack of rain is directly what caused these deadly fires, as the natural weather patterns are not adjusted to this type of heat so late or early in the seasonal cycle. Not only do wildfires directly impact the stability and safety of a community in the short term, but can lead to increased air pollution over time. As vegetation burns, it causes the release of more carbon dioxide into the surrounding atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide holds in more heat in the atmosphere, especially in that particular area, therefore, leading to the repetition of this phenomenon on both a large and small scale.

In areas where wildfires historically have occurred for many years, we need to look back on historic practices for dealing with wildfires, specifically indigenous approaches. Groups have historically evolved in areas where wildfires are common to live in such a manner that supports both developed living and the environmental health of an area. Take, for example, the indigenous tribes of California, such as the North Fork Mono people. They adjusted to the landscape and climate patterns before any industrialization. While we might assume that the major problem with wildfire control in these areas is the lack of western scientific intervention, this is not necessarily true. The secret to managing these wildfires is also rooted in indigenous practices that have been around for millennia. One such policy is controlled burning. Controlled burning has been used by many cultures to encourage the regrowth of vegetation to prevent larger fires in the future. By carefully timing this intervention during the seasons where the area is most prone to wildfires, dead vegetation that makes the chances of wildfires worse is eliminated in a way that is based on the observed changes in wind and temperature of an area. [2]

Slash-and-burn agriculture is another technique that is sometimes associated with fire management, but the major difference is that this practice is highly damaging to the environment. It is important to contrast this with controlled burning to understand what needs to be done to improve this situation, and what practices could actually make it worse and need to be avoided. Slash-and-burn agriculture is the clearing of forests and otherwise wooded areas with large-scale burning that causes deforestation, pollution, a large amount of ash, and loss of moisture in the soil. The areas that this process is used in often becomes unsuitable for growing any form of vegetation after as little as five applications. [3] However, controlled burning does nearly the opposite. While it still releases a small amount of pollution in the atmosphere, it is used to selectively burn vegetation that can lead to further wildfire hazards and occurrences, thus being beneficial in the long run. By incorporating the scientific methodology that can make the dates and methods of prescribed burning even more precise, we can be able to apply these indigenous practices in these areas to lessen the impact of wildfires before they even start. 

A large factor as to why this needs to be addressed is that wildfires also have a large economic impact. Firstly, the areas impacted by wildfires are those which historically have relied on the region’s climate and natural situation to produce a reliable living situation for a community.  This principle is also applicable to flooding in historic communities which have built themselves and their communities around the climate of the region. Secondly, these areas are also heavily reliant on these stable weather patterns for their economic livelihood. Drastic decrease or damage in housing that cannot be predicted or maintained from one year to the next can cause many unexpected needs for relocation and retreat, much like with flooding. 

The economic impact of this directly connects with the reinforcement of policies surrounding fire insurance in California and in Greece. Unlike flood insurance in California, fire insurance is covered by default by most insurance companies in the private market. [4] In Greece, both fire insurance and flood insurance are combined into this private market. Recently, however, there has been an increase in the rate of fire insurance in California due to the effects of climate change on the severity of damages from these fires. This is the result of a new economic implementation called the FAIR Plan. [5] This plan increases the overall cost of fire insurance because it goes through what is called a “shared market plan”, which is outside of standard insurance policies but is set up to benefit these properties in these at-risk areas by offering them more protection and funding in the case of wildlife emergencies. However, there are other concerns that may surround a program such as this. Since regulation of this additional funding is not managed by insurance companies and is instead a federal program, there is a chance that it may end up having the same problems with funding as national flood insurance, which was created as a government program but suffered a severe lack of funding due to other economic interventions and policies. Therefore, we need to create more effective plans and courses of action that do not necessarily involve insurance or federal programs. 

There are several policies that exist that can be implemented in both California and Greece to solve this issue. In my previous article surrounding the flooding in both of these regions, there are a few techniques that I mentioned for dealing with and adapting to these changes. These techniques are to Protect, Accommodate, and Retreat. To protect, infrastructure change is something that can definitely impact the way that wildfires are managed in a region. Making sure that homes are better equipped to deal with these fires and stricter land usage is something that can be done fairly easily. Making policies that are built on the idea of prescribed burning may require lobbying and persuading government officials, but can become effective and sustainable after implementation. On this note, there are several current policies that regulate building codes and land use. In the academic literature on wildfires, there currently exists a concept known as the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). [6] This is land that sits in between developed and undeveloped land. In California, areas that are placed near this fringe are disproportionately white and high-income, in contrast to areas that are more prone to flooding and other climate hazards. Although these affluent neighborhoods have land and greenspace, their planning is not utilized effectively to make them environmentally safe. When homes in this area are destroyed by fire, they are replaced with houses with an even larger lot size. This makes the new homes even more expensive, further driving segregation in these areas. Policymakers should disincentivize building large new homes in the WUI, as it puts a strain on public resources and makes the current situation worse.

In both California and Greece, changing the way that land is used, as well as building regulations, can work with accommodation in both of these two places. Practices such as prescribed burning and regulating the use of land, not letting vehicles idle, bonfires occur, or other fire hazards be present in certain areas when the land is most vulnerable to this type of burning. Secondly, reinforcing existing infrastructure with stricter regulations surrounding flammable materials would also be a policy of interest. If this could be mandated through federal and government regulations, regardless of the building, socioeconomic bracket, or geographical location, It could prove crucial to the security and stability of a community. [7]

Sometimes, infrastructure-based adaptation is not sufficient. In this case, we need to consider to what extent Managed Retreat, the gradual migration to different geographical areas of these communities, is useful. In this case, we need to consider the implications, both social and economic, of moving these communities. Cultural customs and adaptation that also leads to economic stability may change or be lost, and communities may have a difficult time adjusting to the new area with other communities. Also, areas that are less prone to wildfires may become overcrowded because of this migration, making this a less optimal solution to this problem. However, we need to still consider this as an element of a long-term solution to this Climate-induced change in livability.

In conclusion, wildfires are something that is being experienced in both California and Greece. Both of the regions need to take into account how wildfires occur and what factors can influence their increase. Extreme heat, lightning strikes, or other natural means of combustion, as well as misuse of land, can all contribute to wildfires, meaning that decision-makers need to look back to indigenous wildfire prevention practices and enact them with the scientific efficiency of the modern day. Placing emphasis on properly reinforcing building standards is something else that is vital to managing both the natural phenomenon of wildfires and the betterment of a community. This can be difficult since many of the areas that are prone to wildfires historically have been in regions that constitute the “Wildland-Urban Interface” between the region between western-colonial urban structures and the natural environment that have inefficient or unsafe infrastructure. With adequate enforcement of policy revisions within local and national governments, this change can become a reality. 

Works Cited:

[1] C2ES. (2021, May 20). Wildfires and Climate Change. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. https://www.c2es.org/content/wildfires-and-climate-change/

[2] Sommer, L. (2020, August 24). To Manage Wildfire, California Looks To What Tribes Have Known All Along. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/24/899422710/to-manage-wildfire-california-looks-to-what-tribes-have-known-all-along.

[3] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2019, March 28). Slash-and-burn agriculture. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/slash-and-burn-agriculture

[4] Nieves, S. (2021, January 25). Does Homeowners Insurance Cover Fire? Policygenius. https://www.policygenius.com/homeowners-insurance/does-homeowners-insurance-cover-fire/

[5] Wells Media Group, Inc. (2020, February 21). California FAIR Plan Can Offer Only Fire Insurance, Judge Says. Insurance Journal. https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/west/2020/02/21/559030.htm#

[6] American Society of Adaptation Professionals. (2021, March 10). Housing, Wildfires, Climate Migration and Managed Retreat. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6fVB6hoh6e0

[7] Rafenberg, M. (2021, May 23). ‘Ecological disaster’ feared as Greece battles forest fire. Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2021-05-ecological-disaster-greece-forest.html

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