Fire plays an important role in maintaining woodland ecosystems. It declutters forest floors of older biomass, and makes way for the next generation of healthy new growth. But fire introduced to undergrowth too often destroys too much; severely reducing biodiversity, and contributing hugely to air pollution – the single most important global environmental risk factor for human mortality. And, as humans remain the leading cause of wildfire, the responsibility to reverse the damage done falls on our shoulders. That’s why iconic lighter brand Zippo is on a mission to fight fire with fire, and help replant the world’s forests to counter the effects of deforestation. Here are five human-caused forest fires that highlight why it’s so important that we do just that…
Heilongjiang Fire – China, 1987
One of the largest fires ever to occur in history, the Heilongjiang Fire may have been the world’s biggest fire in centuries. Fueled by a forest worker when gasoline from his brush cutter ignited, the Heilongjiang Fire devoured three million acres of forest in The Greater Khingan Range, including one sixth of China’s timber reserves. Reports attributed the fire’s easy spread to dry conditions in the area – but it was excessive logging activity without any effort to let the forest regrow that really let it rage unhindered. 34,000 soldiers were deployed to put the fire out, and 33,000 people were left homeless. The loss of timber badly affected the Chinese economy, and the scorched, barren land left behind contributed to the desertification of Northern China. As devastating as the Heilongjiang Fire was, it highlighted the importance of fully integrating climate considerations into fire management.
Wallow Fire – USA, 2011
Still the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history, Wallow got its name when two men accidentally started it while camping in the Bear Wallow Wilderness. Their campfire blew out of control and burned through over half a million acres of land, costing $72 million dollars to extinguish, and a further $37 million to clean up and rebuild after the damage. More than 60 homes, businesses, and other structures were lost, and 6,000 people had to be evacuated. Difficulties in getting firefighting equipment, such as bulldozers and chainsaws, over the rough terrain allowed the blaze to burn hot and fast, throwing plumes of smoke 30,000 feet into the air. When the wind changed, it forced the smoke back down, feeding the fire like an enormous bellow.
Brandenburg Fire – Germany, 2018
Following an increasing number of wildfires occurring in Europe – largely thanks to longer, dryer summers than usual – the forested area of Brandenburg, Germany, caught alight. The cause was never entirely confirmed, but local police believed that evidence pointed to arson. Brandenburg lost nearly 1,000 acres of its forested land and three nearby villages had to be evacuated. A choking, smoky haze drifted twelve miles to Berlin, causing residents to have to shut themselves in their homes. As if the Brandenburg fire wasn’t difficult enough to fight, the area was littered with unexploded munitions left over from World War II, which began detonating from the heat of the inferno above. Luckily firefighters were able to get the fire back under control.
Saddleworth Moor Fire – UK, 2018
In the last few years the UK has seen an increasing number of forest fires, but last year’s blaze on Saddleworth Moor, near Manchester, was one of the worst ever recorded. Extremely hot weather was blamed as a primary ignition factor, but locals claimed the fire was started by a visiting group of bikers. Although the initial fire was put out that same day, smoldering peat just under the ground’s surface caused a reignition which raged for another day before being declared a major, uncontained incident. One hundred and fifty people had to be evacuated from their homes, and eventually the military were brought in to put the fire out – which they did, five days later. However, the resulting ash and particulates formed a ground-level haze that swept across Greater Manchester, drastically raising air pollution levels and causing a spike in respiratory issues.
Uttarakhand fires – India, 2016
Throughout the year, man-made fires plagued the pine forests of the sloped, sub-Himalayan Region of Uttarakhand. Widespread media coverage eventually spurred the government on to intervene, sending Indian Air Force helicopters to put them out. Human-caused forest fires in Uttarakhand are a historic problem in the area, but what was remarkable about 2016 was the sheer number of them – 1,600 were set alight over a month. It’s suspected that these increased numbers could be the result of honey or seed collectors trying to frighten off animals, or by those concealing illegal timbering activity. Going forward, ecologists are suggesting that forest floors be cleared of fallen pine needles as much as possible to prevent future fires from spreading – something that can be undertaken by the forest department, but it also needs grassroots buy-in from locals to prevent further major outbreaks.