A crisis is taking place in forests, where the latest fire seasons have been raging with unprecedented ferocity, from the Amazon to the Arctic.

In April 2020, the number of fire alerts across the globe were up by 13% compared to last year – which was already a record year for fires. Persistent hotter and drier weather due to climate change, and other human factors such as land conversion for agriculture and poor forest management are the main drivers behind the increase. 

Climate change and wildfires mutually reinforce each other, and the fires burning today in many parts of the world are bigger, more intense, and last longer than they used to. If current trends continue, there will be devastating long-term consequences on people, wildlife and the climate. 

WWF's report, produced in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), takes a deeper dive into fire trends and what they mean for people and the planet, and sets out recommendations to address the key causes.

Read the report

Fires, forests and the future: a crisis raging out of control?

Download the report

The issue
Wildfires affect all biomes, from forests and savannahs to grasslands and tundra. Even though forests make up only 10% of the total area burned, their higher carbon storage  capacity means that they are responsible for one quarter of all fire-related carbon dioxide emissions. 

An increasing share of wildfires are due to human activity, intentional or otherwise. In the Northern Hemisphere, most fires are caused by negligence (e.g. burning rubbish and debris, industrial accidents, agricultural overspill etc.), and arson is also sometimes to blame. 

In some tropical and subtropical regions, forest fires are mostly intentionally set for land-use change, clearing and preparing new areas for cultivation.

© WWF-Australia / Leonie Sii
Changing climate, worsening trends

Regardless of whether fires start naturally or are deliberately set, their overall impact has been growing in recent decades.

By examining three factors – surface burned, frequency and severity – the growing influence of climate change becomes obvious. The carbon released into the atmosphere by the fires further increases global heating, and the vicious circle gets worse. This establishes a positive feedback loop that amplifies the role of extreme hot dry weather in generating more frequent intense fires that in turn generate increased forest carbon emissions.

Ongoing deforestation and rising temperatures are projected to reach levels that would cause even the largest intact forest biomes to switch from net sink to net source of billions of tonnes of sequestered forest carbon.

© Gianfranco Mancussi / WWF Paraguay
The consequences
Globally, fires emit carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to the European Union every year: their contribution to the climate crisis alone would be more than enough of a reason for the global community to treat their increase as a major threat. But that’s not all: wildfires also have severe consequences for human health and wellbeing, biodiversity, and economies around the world.

The effects of wildfires linger long after the flames die down, hitting public health and wellbeing far into the future. Every year, there are an estimated 340,000 premature deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular issues attributed to wildfire smoke.

The increasing frequency and severity of wildfires pose a growing threat to biodiversity globally. Individuals, companies and public authorities bear great economic costs due to fires. 

© WWF-Australia / Douglas Thron
Urgent action

Fires in 2020 are on course to be worse than in 2019 – and fires are a critical global issue that needs urgent global solutions.

To have any chance of restricting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C in line with the Paris Agreement, more needs to be done to cut carbon emissions from forest fires, by governments, businesses, communities and individuals alike. The best place to start is to focus on the causes and the factors driving them.

We need to:

  • Raise climate change ambition worldwide
  • Improve Paris Agreement accounting for emissions from ‘non-anthropogenic’ fires 
  • Reinvest in prevention
  • Halt deforestation
  • Reinstate fire where it has been excluded from key landscapes
  • Clarify governance, coordinate policies
  • Use a science-based approach to risk and interventions
  • Bring businesses on board
  • Come together to fight forest fires

What WWF is doing

  • We mobilised to help people and wildlife in need during the recent Australian and Amazon fires.
  • In Brazil, WWF provides both immediate support for fighting fires and works continuously against deforestation in the Amazon.
  • In Colombia, WWF supports "Friends of the Forest" - a group of community leaders working to prevent wildfires around the Chiribiquete National Park, one of the Colombian Amazon most threatened areas by deforestation.
  • We're working to support wildlife in wildfire-affected areas in Ukraine and reduce the risks of future fires. 
  • WWF-Malaysia organised the XFire Innovation Challenge to seek scalable technological solutions to suppress large wildfires in Southeast Asia’s inland and peatland forests.  
  • WWF-Bolivia established a forest fire emergency program and has launched a petition calling for action. Support the campaign.