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Managing Wildfires in a Changing Climate

In recent years, wildfire seasons have become longer and harsher, causing significant ecological, economic and social damage. In 2019 and into 2020, fires burned across the globe‚ÄĒin the Amazon, Alaska, Australia, California, Europe, Indonesia and Russia‚ÄĒravaging ecosystems, communities and economies. 

For the most part, such extreme wildfires are the result of policy, planning and governance decisions related to land use, coupled with increasingly adverse weather conditions due to climate change. When combined, these factors create the conditions for wildfires to grow into extreme wildfires that exceed humanity’s ability to control and suppress them. The global context for wildfires is changing and countries must take more action to proactively prevent wildfires and to suppress fires when needed to prevent them from becoming extreme wildfires.

This paper takes stock of factors that contribute to extreme wildfires, including climate change, land-use change, and demographic shifts, and recommends policy actions that can be taken to improve wildfire prevention and management depending on national circumstances. 

The biggest shift from the current reactive approach, which often relies on emergency response and fire suppression, is increased investment in prevention. Governments can help prevent extreme wildfires through measures such as improved land-use planning, eliminating perverse incentives for using fire to change land use, and clarifying land tenure rights. Other actions include implementing existing fire management techniques such as integrated fire management and fire danger rating, improving fire monitoring and early detection and strengthening stakeholder involvement in fire management planning. 

Although investment in wildfire prevention may get less recognition than suppression efforts, it is essential if we are to reduce the social, economic and ecological costs of extreme wildfires. Such preventive and proactive wildfire management is needed if we are to support countries to end extreme poverty, increase shared prosperity, and meet their objectives under the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the post-2020 biodiversity framework. 

We hope this paper provides countries with the needed policy guidance to shift their approach to one that is more effective in a changing climate. 

Foreword by Karin Kemper Global Director, Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy World Bank Group

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Last Updated : 05-20-2020

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