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Living with fire in the boreal biome

Fire in forest

The month of August is wildfire season in many regions. News headlines are dominated by stories of helicopters and fire brigades fighting the fire, and indeed, heroically saving lives and property.  While wildfires are a natural part of many environments and essential to clear out dead underbrush and restore nutrients, scientists have warned that they are becoming more frequent and that the wildfire season is becoming longer.

During the event “The science and policy of wildfires in the boreal biome”, which was held in the margins of the International Boreal Forest Research Association (IBFRA) Conference on 20 August 2021, experts from the boreal region drew attention to the fact that fire management policies in many regions and for many years have largely focused on combating fire rather than living with it. This is exemplified by suppression measures aiming to put out fires as soon as they occur, leading to the accumulation of combustible matter in forests and larger and more sever fires.

“Media is paying a lot of attention on how we supress fire, but not enough on what needs to be done to make boreal communities more resilient to fire”, said Edward Struzik, one of the event’s panellists and award winning journalist and author. Indigenous peoples have always understood this way of “living with fire”. By practicing light burning, they instinctively understood that reducing high fuel loads diminishes the risks of large fires occurring. For decades, indigenous communities have lobbied government to allow ‘prescribed burning’, which, as research shows, decreases fire risk, leads to less damaging wildfire events and is now practiced in a number of countries, including Canada and the United States.

Mr. Roman Kotelnikov, Head of the the Center of Forest Pyrology in Russia, noted that increasing temperatures, less rainfall, and more days without precipitation lead to increased fire risk in his country. Longer wildfire seasons in turn could in themselves contribute to climate change by releasing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases and accelerating the thawing of methane-loaden permafrost soils, and significantly impacting the boreal ecosystem’s long-term ability to regenerate.

The recent fire events in boreal forested parts of Canada and Siberia, where smoke has reached larger urban centres, have also confirmed long-held fears about the socio-economic and health impacts of a changing climate. Prof. Johann Goldhammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Centre noted that “with flames and smoke sometimes crossing borders, wildfires have ceased to be a national issue and its transboundary effects, such as long-range air pollution, need to be addressed collaboratively”.

While we are faced with the threats and impacts of wildfire on the one hand, a healthy boreal forest holds significant potential for mitigating climate change and its effects. As the world’s largest terrestrial carbon storehouse, the boreal biome is not only vital for stabilizing the global climate and providing long-lived wood products. It also provides livelihoods to rural and indigenous communities and habitat for many iconic species.

“With less than 10 years left to meet the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals”, Ms. Olga Algayerova, the Executive Secretary of UNECE urged, “we have less than 10 years to restore our earth’s forests, implement sustainable forest management practices and protect vital ecosystems for future generations”. The UNECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Boreal Forests was created in 2019 in order to tackle these global issues collaboratively and gather scientists and policy-makers around the same table.

The recording of the event, along with all presentations, will be posted here: https://unece.org/info/Forests/events/358273

For more information on the UNECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Boreal Forests visit: https://unece.org/forests/team-specialists-boreal-forests

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