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New study highlights how the use of controlled burning can help save human lives

A study published in The Lancet Planetary Health has revealed that annually, more than 33,500 deaths around the globe are ‘directly attributable to wildfire pollution’. As we well know, wildfires create huge amounts of smoke and pollution which can have devastating effects on public health. A previous study by Leeds University into the effects of the 2018 Saddleworth Moor fire estimated that around 4.5million people were affected by the microparticles that the wildfire released, and that around 9 fatalities were ‘brought forward’ as a result of the smoke from the fires.

The latest study, which was carried out by an international team including researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Brunel University London and from Australia, China and Spain, studied 66 million deaths in 43 countries from 2000 to 2016. They concluded that in the UK, air pollution from wildfires kills almost 200 people a year.

It was already well documented that air pollution such as this can increase the risk of heart disease, strokes, and lung cancer; as the most recent study found, ‘exposure to wildfire-related PM2.5 was significantly associated with increased all-cause, cardiovascular, and respiratory mortality at a global level.’

The study is even more worrying ­– and relevant – due to the fact that globally, this summer has been one of the worst for wildfires. In California wildfires have forced people to leave their homes and devastated much of the US West; in Greece residents were forced to flee islands by boat, and forced their government to create a new ministry to address the issue of climate change.

The moors of the UK are, as we know, hugely vulnerable to wildfires. Lots of things can contribute to the likelihood of wildfires; weather conditions, the amount of people on the moors (as unfortunately many fires are man-made of some description), and of course moorland management. A recent piece on Bloomberg argued – as so many people who know and understand the UK’s uplands would also argue – that controlled burning has an important role to play in controlling wildfires. Taking the example of an area near Lake Tahoe in Nevada, where the Caldor Fire burned more than 217,000 acres of land, the article highlighted patches of living trees which survived the fires – and pointed out that these patches overlapped with an area that had been treated with prescribed burning in 2019.

A public information officer at the Sacramento Metro Fire District confirmed that “The hard work that the Forest Service has done to pull out those [ground] fuels and basically clean up the forest in that area made stops that have absolutely helped.”

However despite all of this, since August of this year a national moratorium on managed wildfires has been put in place, as well as stricter rules on prescribed fires. This decision hasn’t been without its detractors: over 40 scientists have signed a letter in protest at the policy.

Herein lies the problem: although prescribed and cool burns can both help to prevent wildfires from starting in the first place, and restrict their spread once they have started, there are many people who are completely against the idea of burning the brush and dead vegetation that accumulates in unmanaged moorland and forest areas.

Similarly in the Guardian, Greece's former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis argued that burning was vital for the prevention of wildfires, pointing out how 'fire is a natural ally of Mediterranean pine forests. It helps clear the ground of old trees and allows young ones to prosper. By helping themselves to the wood daily and by employing tactical burning every spring, villagers once prevented these fires from running amok.'

What will it take for people to sit up and listen; to appreciate that without managing the problem of excess fuel load through burning, wildfires will continue to devastate the landscape and kill thousands of people – let alone animals – every year? For thousands of year managed burning has been a vital tool used by people across the globe to stop their homes literally going up in smoke. Whether on the uplands of Yorkshire or the forests of California or Australia, burning is a vital tool. Without it, the devastation will simply continue year after year.


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