Forest fire management
Forest and savanna fires release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere in a short amount of time. Ground fire is often a natural feature of healthy ecosystems, but uninformed past human interventions have left forests and savannas more susceptible to catastrophic fires. Better managing how and when forest and savanna burns can prevent excessive loss of carbon into the atmosphere.
This climate mitigation pathway involves three discrete types of fire management:
- Prescribed fires in fire-prone temperate forests to reduce emissions of biomass from the historic rate of wildfire losses.
- Prescribed early-season burns in the savanna to avoid higher emissions from late-season burns.
- Fire control practices in Amazonian forests to avoid unintended fires that degrade the forest (such as fire breaks at forest edges).
Worldwide, avoided fire impacts could be applied across an area of 1 million hectares per year, an area larger than the size of Puerto Rico.
Fire management would prevent the release of up to 127 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year (MtCO2e/year). That’s comparable to the emissions from 27 million passenger vehicles per year.
Improving fire management will require overcoming some challenges. Implementing prescribed fires and fire breaks will require an initial investment of upfront capital. And because fire management is not a one-time intervention, there will be ongoing annual costs.
Conservationists must also consider that prescribed fires will involve increased initial emissions in order to avoid future larger emissions. In addition, as it is not possible to know the precise location of future wildfires, fire management must occur routinely across a large area.
As a result of these challenges, we estimate that fire management is a relatively higher-cost pathway. However, this pathway involves low-tech, well-understood fire management practices, which could be implemented immediately if the funds were made available.
Partnerships with local communities will be an important part of moving this pathway forward. Incentives and capacity building will be helpful in improving fire management, in storing more carbon and improving local livelihoods.
Spotlight: West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project
In countries such as Australia, intense, uncontrolled wildfires late in the dry season contribute significantly to annual greenhouse gas emissions. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project aims to shrink that contribution through more frequent, but less intense, prescribed burns.
The project is a partnership between Australian Aboriginal Traditional Owners and Indigenous Ranger Groups, Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas, the Northern Territory Government and the Northern Land Council. WALFA pays Indigenous Fire Rangers to conduct traditional strategic fire management across 2.8 million hectares of Western Arnhem.
In its first three years, the project realized a 38 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to the 10-year project baseline.
Notably, the project demonstrated accounting methods for quantifying emission reductions resulting from fire management practices in a fire-dependent savanna system. The project has also proven the viability of engaging indigenous groups in traditional fire management activities in order to reduce fire emissions.
Improved fire management practices will be particularly important in African savanna ecosystems and the frontier forests of the Brazilian Amazon.