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Fire$: Economic Drivers of Global Wildland Fire Activity

TF Fire$: Economic Drivers of Global Wildland Fire Activity

Task Force Coordinator:

François-Nicolas Robinne, Canada


The Fire$ Task Force was inspired by a global expert workshop on "Global Fire Challenges in a Warming World" organized by IUFRO on behalf of the World Bank during the summer of 2018. During the workshop, beside traditional themes such as climate change and forest management, several discussions among fire researchers and managers revolved around the likely influence of economic factors on the current global pattern of landscape fires. Much anecdotal evidence points to the contributing role of international trade in agricultural commodities, the expansion of large industrial forest plantations and tree crops, and the economic structure of nations. Despite the seemingly obvious relationships between economy and fire activity reported by many observers, research and discussion on this topic have been more limited, with only a few publications introducing a restricted set of economic indicators, often over narrow spatial and temporal scales. This Task Force is the foundation of an international consortium of researchers, managers, and practitioners whose aim is to examine the role of local-to-global temporal, spatial and economic dynamics (including non-monetary values/markets) influencing the occurrence of wildland fires across the planet as it warms.


The relationship between land use/land cover change and landscape-scale fire activity has been described for a long time across a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Whilst demographic drivers have received the majority of research studies seeking to understand the role of human populations in the observed levels of fire activity; including broadcast fires, prescribed fires, and wildfires, economic drivers have seldom been included and are often limited to the Gross Domestic Product. Although GDP is considered a valid proxy for the general understanding of global economic patterns, its correlation with fire activity is far from unequivocal, a case that points to other underlying factors not captured by a single global indicator. Furthermore, several local-to-regional pieces of evidence have pointed at the nexus between the economic level of local populations, fire activity and effects on the provision of ecosystem services, and the global 'appetite' for international commodities (e.g. the exploitation of oil palm in Indonesia). This nexus occurs through large temporal and spatial scales and can be referred to as 'tele-coupling', which, in the context of this TF, suggests that economic drivers of global fire activity work transnationally and are often hidden within the movements of capital associated with resources, goods and markets. Thus, constructing meaningful economic indicators that can help describe the underlying processes and promote actions/decision-making is paramount. To date, however, there is no comprehensive assessment of the economic drivers of global fire activity, either as direct drivers linked to capital market systems/cash economies or as indirect drivers linked to the production of non-market values from ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration.

Other economic drivers of landscape fire activity might be better perceived at a regional or local scale and linked to a diversity of underlying causes that are dependent on history (e.g., colonization), cultural practices and spiritual beliefs, land rights, existing fire management policies, and current political stability. Although ultimately tied to tele-coupling through top-down or bottom-up dynamics, change in the socio-economic structure of nations impacts local populations, especially indigenous peoples, often poorer, and limit their economic opportunities. When the use of fire leads to land degradation, especially when subsistence forests are targeted, the capacity to alleviate poverty may be further reduced. Conversely, countries where colonial fire management has reduced fire in landscapes and denied fire use as a central component of Indigenous people has reduced the production of ecosystem services the Indigenous subsistence economies rely on and forced them to become more reliant on Colonial western monetary cash economies. Indigenous burning was outlawed, and Indigenous had then to adopt western colonial labor jobs in extractive industries such as timber harvesting and fire suppression to survive and still live in their homelands/ancestral territories. They are now being among the poorest and most food and water insecure communities in countries such as USA, Canada, and Brazil.

On top of those many complex and still unclear relationships, ongoing global environmental changes pose new threats to environmental stability, economic development, ecosystem services, and eventually human security. One can envision that this "double exposure" of human societies to global change acceleration and economic globalization will modify the existing social-ecological relationships governing the current global pattern of landscape fires. Ever-growing fire suppression expenditures related to outdated fire-suppression narratives have created an "ecological fire debt", thereby deferring the risk and making the next fire more dangerous and costly to suppress and control. This shift in the timing and type of fire, combined with the introduction of fire in non-adapted socio-ecological systems, also creates long-term impacts on environmental and ecological values that we can't adequately measure at present from an economic standpoint, as a methodology remains to be developed.

Over the next 50 years, such an approach to fire risk governance will make landscapes more hazardous and increase the vulnerability of society and Indigenous communities, as well as the ecosystem services they depend upon. Losses associated to increasing catastrophic fire activity are often driven by distorted economic incentives and ineffective/fragmented policies. In developed countries, residential development near and within fire-prone wildlands (i.e., the wildland-urban and rural interface) has been identified as one of the primary cause of rapid increases in wildfire-related losses and fire suppression costs incurred by governments. In developing countries, broadcast fires continue to be an inexpensive way to clear lands for commercial agricultural crops affecting ignitions despite existing regulation, while social and health costs associated to those practices, incurred at the individual level, result in significant economic burdens and the multiplication of impact per head dispersed among population.

While current and future global fire activity is the product of complex natural and anthropogenic interactions, we contend that the role of economic factors has been thus far poorly studied in comparison to ecological, climatic, and other human factors. Although these factors cannot be analyzed in isolation, looking at the problem from an economic standpoint will hopefully offer new and informative insights.


The TF main focus is manifold: 1) reaching a better understanding of the global-to-local economic drivers of fire activity through time and space, 2) deciphering the bottom-up and top-down economic controls influencing variation in global fire activity, and 3) exploring the future of global fire activity according to future social, economic, and environmental pathways. Meeting those objectives will strengthen IUFRO's credibility regarding growing global wildland fire issues and further emphasize the role of IUFRO in the promotion of sustainable, community-based forest development.

This broad focus will allow for a diversity of discussion foci addressing one or many aspects of the problem at stake. These discussions will in turn help in defining a set of priority topics to be addressed according to specific temporal and spatial settings (e.g. global or local, over the past 10 years or in the future). Taking advantage of the large panel of knowledge and skills brought by the collaborators, the TF will explore a range of important topics:

  • Identify the spatio-temporal relationships between global trade, national socio-economic profiles, and global patterns of fire activity, as well as the nature and the direction of those relationships. There is a particular interest in the consequences of afforestation for timber, agroforestry, and other tree plantation and forest-related products;
  • Explore existing or potential links and feedbacks between fire activity and poverty, especially the poverty in Indigenous communities, how fire hinders and/or can increase the capacity of natural lands to alleviate poverty, and what the sustainable alternatives to the use of fire are;
  • Identify and analyze existing bottom-up initiatives showing that local economies and their associated landscape management practices (e.g. agroforestry systems) can be sustainable and efficient at promoting non-burning agricultural practices, or at least sound fire practices (i.e., "good fires"), and forest health for economic stability/independence promoting security of human communities. "Prescribed grazing" in Europe, or "cool fire" burning by aboriginal communities (e.g. in Australia) are examples to explore. It seems important to explore the economic tradeoffs of the impact of fire use on the atmosphere and climate change, relative to the cost of promoting other potentially more climate-friendly land management strategies;
  • Review the current state of knowledge, evaluate the efficacy of current environmental regulation and fire management policies with respect to this issue, list existing programs addressing the problem, and identify further beneficial actions (e.g., research, education, knowledge transfer, and cross-cultural fire stewardship). Specifically, a better understanding of the role of economic drivers relative to social, cultural, demographic, and ecological drivers could help design tailored outreach actions;
  • Identify and evaluate the explanatory economic factors behind fire activity, the economic tradeoffs and synergies in the provision of ecosystem services linked to the use of fire, alternative land management scenarios (e.g. rural/wildland urban interface), and loss/cost saving options provided by fire exclusion, fire-use alternatives, and sustainable fire use in changing climate conditions. Note that these aspects will be highly variable depending on the geographic context.
  • Design a number of future scenarios linking global environmental change, future global and national economic outlooks, and future human-made fire activity hotspots. For instance, the combination of worsening hydrological drought, forest landscape degradation, climate change and increased wildland fire potential will likely evolve in the future and be influenced by direct and indirect economic choices. Those scenarios will be shared with the scientific community in the hope it will trigger further research projects;
  • Identify existing or to-be-developed indicators of "economically responsible fire practices or alternatives" that could be used as monitoring tools of industrial Best Management Practices and Corporate Environmental Responsibility. Specifically, if one considers that global trade creates leakage ('export') of fire activity, a 'virtual fire trade' embedded in the carbon market may engage governments and companies into better economic practices;
  • Evaluate the tradeoffs and synergies of Indigenous "human services for ecosystems" associated with aboriginal/indigenous fire stewardship that maintains desired environmental and cultural conditions of fire prone ecosystems: are the costs of this type of land management strategy have increased with the advance of climate change? Are these tradeoffs really worth the cost of the CO2 spilled into the atmosphere?
  • Reach out to a number of stakeholders (i.e., industry, trading companies, governmental agencies, NGOs) and invite them to join a forum discussing solutions for better governance, planning, and education.