The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse (2024)

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The latest data on forest fires confirms what we’ve long feared: Forest fires are becoming more widespread, burning nearly twice as much tree cover today as they did 20 years ago.

Using data from a recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland, we calculated that forest fires now result in 3 million more hectares of tree cover loss per year compared to 2001 — an area roughly the size of Belgium — and accounted for more than one-quarter of all tree cover loss over the past 20 years.

The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse (1)

2021 was one of the worst years for forest fires since the turn of the century, causing an alarming 9.3 million hectares of tree cover loss globally — over one-third of all tree cover loss that occurred that year. Though down from the previous year, over 6.6 million hectares of tree cover was lost to forest fires in 2022, similar to other years over the past decade. And in 2023, the world has already seen heightened fire activity, including record-breaking burns across Canada and catastrophic fires in Hawaii.

Climate Change Is Making Fires Worse

Climate change is one of the major drivers of increasing fire activity. Extreme heat waves are already 5 times more likely today than they were 150 years ago and are expected to become even more frequent as the planet continues to warm. Hotter temperatures dry out the landscape and help create the perfect environment for larger, more frequent forest fires. This in turn leads to higher emissions from forest fires, further exacerbating climate change and contributing to more fires as part of a “fire-climate feedback loop.”

This feedback loop, combined with the expansion of human activities into forested areas, is driving much of the increase in fire activity we see today.

The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse (2)

Here’s a look at some of the places most impacted by increasing forest fires, based on the latest data:

Mounting Temperatures Are Fueling More Severe Fires in Boreal Forests

The large majority — roughly 70% — of all fire-related tree cover loss over the past two decades occurred in boreal regions. Though fire is a natural part of how boreal forests function ecologically, fire-related tree cover loss in these areas increased by a rate of about 110,000 hectares (3%) per year over the last 20 years — about half the total global increase between 2001 and 2022.

Increasing fire activity in boreal forests is likely due to the fact that northern high-latitude regions are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet. This contributes to longer fire seasons, greater fire frequency and severity, and larger burned areas in these regions.

For example, in 2021, Russia saw an astonishing 5.4 million hectares of fire-related tree cover loss, the most recorded in the last 20 years and a 31% increase over 2020. This record-breaking loss was due in part to prolonged heatwaves that would have been practically impossible without human-induced climate change.

Furthermore, in the first two months alone of Canada’s 2023 wildfire season, the country saw record-high levels of burning across both eastern and western provinces fueled by warmer than average temperatures and drought conditions. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reports that an estimated 9.5 million hectares of land was burned between January and July 2023, an area equivalent to the size of Portugal.

The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse (3)

This trend is worrying because boreal forests store 30%-40% of all terrestrial carbon globally, making them one of the largest land-based carbon storehouses on the planet. Most carbon in boreal forests is stored underground in the soil, including in permafrost, and has historically been protected from infrequent fires that occur naturally. But changes in climate and fire activity are melting permafrost and making soil carbon more vulnerable to burning.

These shifting forest dynamics could eventually turn boreal forests from a carbon sink (an area that absorbs more carbon than it emits) into a source of carbon emissions.

How Do We Measure Tree Cover Loss from Fires?

Researchers at the University of Maryland used Landsat satellite imagery to map the area of tree cover lost to stand-replacing forest fires (fires that kill all or most of the living overstory in a forest) annually from 2001 to 2022. Loss from these types of fires is not always permanent but stand-replacing fires can cause long-term changes to forest structure and soil chemistry, and differ from lower intensity understory fires that provide ecological benefits for many forests. The new data provides a long-term view of these types of fires over the last 20 years at a higher resolution than ever before, and helps researchers distinguish the impact of tree cover loss from fires and loss from other drivers like agriculture and forestry. Learn more about the data on Global Forest Watch.

Agricultural Expansion and Forest Degradation Are Stoking Fires in Tropical Forests

In contrast to boreal forests, stand-replacing fires are not a usual part of the ecological cycle in tropical forests. Yet fires are increasing in this region as well. Over the last 20 years, fire-related tree cover loss in the tropics increased at a rate of about 36,000 hectares (around 5%) per year and accounted for roughly 15% of the total global increase in tree cover loss from fires between 2001 and 2022.

Though fires are responsible for less than 10% of all tree cover loss in the tropics, more common drivers like commodity-driven deforestation and shifting agriculture make tropical forests less resilient and more susceptible to fires. Deforestation and forest degradation associated with agricultural expansion lead to higher temperatures and dried out vegetation, creating additional fuel and allowing fires to spread more quickly.

The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse (4)

El Niño and Tropical Forest Fires

In addition to climate and land use changes, wildfire risk in the tropics is further fueled by El Niño events, natural climate cycles that recur every 2-7 years and cause high temperatures and below-average rainfall in certain parts of the world. During the 2015-2016 El Niño season, for example, tree cover loss due to fires increased 10-fold in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia and Latin America. A new El Niño event emerged in June 2023 and is expected to last through early 2024.

In addition, it is relatively common in this region to use fires to clear land for new pasture or agricultural fields after trees have been felled and left to dry. This tree cover loss is not attributed to fires in the new data because the trees have already been cut down. However, during periods of drought, intentional fires can accidentally escape newly cleared fields and spread into surrounding forests. As a result, almost all fires that occur in the tropics are started by people, rather than sparked by natural ignition sources like lightning strikes. And they are exacerbated by warmer and drier conditions, which can cause fires to rage out of control.

Similar to boreal forests, increasing tree cover loss due to fires in the tropics is causing higher carbon emissions. Previous studies found that in some years, forest fires accounted for more than half of all carbon emissions in the Brazilian Amazon. This suggests the Amazon basin may be nearing or already at a tipping point for turning into a net carbon source.

Heatwaves and Shifting Population Patterns Increase Fire Risk in Temperate and Subtropical Forests

Historically, fires in temperate and subtropical forests have burned less area than boreal and tropical forests: Combined, they accounted for 16% of all fire-related tree cover loss between 2001 and 2022. But the data shows that fires are increasing in these regions as well. And while temperate and subtropical areas tend to contain a larger proportion of managed forests — which can contain fewer species and store less carbon than natural ones — fires in these regions still pose significant risks for people and nature.

As with boreal forests, climate change is the primary driver behind the increasing fire activity in temperate and subtropical forests. For example, heat waves and summer droughts play a dominant role in driving fire activity across the Mediterranean basin. In 2022, record-breaking heat and drought in Spain resulted in more than 70,000 hectares of tree cover burned, the largest amount since 2001. Five years earlier, more than 130,000 hectares of tree cover burned in Portugal under similar circ*mstances — a greater loss than the previous ten years combined.

The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse (5)

Land use changes in and around temperate and subtropical forests are also compounding the impacts of climate change. In Europe, the abandonment of agricultural land in recent years has been followed by excessive vegetation growth that has increased fire risk. In the United States, natural lands are being converted into “wildland-urban interfaces” (places where homes and other manmade structures intermingle with trees and vegetation), increasing the risk of fire ignitions, damage and loss of life.

For example, one of the largest fires in the United States in 2022, California’s Mosquito Fire, burned thousands of hectares of forest in and near areas classified as wildland-urban interfaces, destroying 78 structures in nearby communities. A faulty power line likely started the fire but record temperatures and a lack of humidity allowed it to spread widely. This was just one of many fires that made 2022 a record year in the U.S., with almost 1 million hectares of tree cover burned across the country, resulting in roughly $3.2 billion in damage.

The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse (6)

Both the annual cost and number of deaths from wildfires in the United States have increased over the past four decades. As human activities continue to warm the planet and reshape the landscape, deadly, multi-billion-dollar disasters like these will likely become more common.

How Do We Reduce Forest Fires?

The causes of increasing forest fires are complex and vary by geography. Much has been written about how to manage wildfires and mitigate fire risk, but there is no silver bullet solution.

Climate change clearly plays an important role in driving more frequent and intense fires, especially in boreal forests. As such, there is no solution for bringing fire activity back down to historical levels without drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and breaking the fire-climate feedback loop. Mitigating the worst impacts of climate change is still possible, but it will require rapid and significant transformations across all systems.

In addition to climate change, human activity in and around forests makes them more susceptible to wildfires and plays a role in driving higher levels of fire-related tree cover loss in the tropics and elsewhere. Improving forest resilience by ending deforestation and forest degradation is key to preventing future fires, as is limiting nearby burning that can easily escape into forests, particularly during periods of drought.

While data alone cannot solve this issue, the recent data on fire-driven tree cover loss on Global Forest Watch, along with other fire monitoring data, can help us track fire activity in both the long term and in near-real-time to identify trends and develop targeted, responses.

View a webinar in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia to learn more about tree cover loss from fires and other fire-related data on Global Forest Watch.

This piece was originally published in 2022. It was updated in August 2023 to reflect the latest data on fire-related tree cover loss.

The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse (2024)


The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse? ›

From 2017 to 2021, the average annual acreage burned by wildfire in the U.S. was 68% greater than the yearly average from 1983 to 2016. In 2023 alone, wildfires caused devastating economic losses and death tolls from Maui to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Are the wildfires going to get worse? ›

Climate Change Is Making Fires Worse

Climate change is one of the major drivers of increasing fire activity. Extreme heat waves are already 5 times more likely today than they were 150 years ago and are expected to become even more frequent as the planet continues to warm.

Are forest fires increasing or decreasing? ›

Since 1950, the area burned by California wildfires each year has been increasing, as spring and summer temperatures have warmed and spring snowmelt has occurred earlier.

How have forest fires gotten worse because of climate change? ›

Increasing severe heat and drought due to climate change can fuel wildfires. Hotter temperatures evaporate more moisture from soil and vegetation, drying out trees, shrubs and grasses and turning leaf litter and fallen branches into kindling.

What are the statistics of forest fires? ›

2024 Combined YTD (CALFIRE & US Forest Service)1,76941,926
2023 Combined YTD (CALFIRE & US Forest Service)1,6052,987
5-Year Average (same interval)2,29527,107

What is the main cause of wildfires? ›

Humans cause nearly 90% of wildfires in the United states1 via discarded cigarettes, unattended campfires, burning debris, or through equipment malfunctions. Although less common, wildfires can also occur though non-human phenomena, such as lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions.

Are the fires of the world getting larger? ›

Historical trends show fires getting worse across the globe. The amount of land burned annually by wildfires has increased, despite a decrease in the frequency of wildfire occurrences. During the 1990s, there was an average of 3.3 million acres burned per year due to approximately 78,600 fires.

What country has the most wildfires? ›

Global Wildfires by the Numbers
  1. 1. California, Washington, and Oregon – United States. ...
  2. Amazon Rainforest – Brazil. ...
  3. Siberia and the Arctic. ...
  4. Indonesia. ...
  5. Australia.
Oct 9, 2020

What do experts say about wildfires? ›

A hotter season paired with drier vegetation can lead to more wildfires that are harder to contain,” Chen says. “Stronger winds also add more oxygen to fires, allowing them to spread even faster.” Due to climate change, wildfires and their impacts are expected to increase dramatically.

What are 90% of wildfires caused by? ›

Sign up for Cookies for Heroes. 90% of all wildfires are started by humans. “Crown fires” are spread by wind moving quickly across the tops of trees. “Running crown fires” are even more dangerous because they burn extremely hot, travel rapidly, and can change direction quickly.

What was the worst fire in US history? ›

Forest and countryside fires
1910North Idaho and Western MontanaThe largest Fire in U.S. history burned an area the size of Connecticut (3,000,000 acres [12,000 km2]), killing 87 people, including 78 firefighters
July 29, 1916Six towns destroyed, two more damaged
October 12, 1918Minnesota
4 more rows

What US state has the most wildfires? ›

While California gets much of the attention for wildfires, several other states have been severely impacted as well. Behind California's 4.1 million acres burned in 2020 were 1.1 million acres in Oregon, almost 1 million acres in Arizona, and 842,000 acres in Washington.

Will future wildfires be more extreme? ›

The near-total suppression of fires over the last century means that even a little additional fire in a more fire-prone future can create big changes. As climate change continues to fuel more fires, the relative increase in area burned will be much bigger.

Are house fires increasing or decreasing? ›

From 2021 to 2022, the number of home structure fires rose 7 percent, associated civilian deaths fell 5 percent, civilian injuries fell 9 percent, and home fire property damage rose 21 percent. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more people spent more time at home during 2021 and parts of 2022.

How long can wildfires last? ›

On average, individual fires today burn for a significantly longer time than they used to. Research conducted by fire scientist Anthony Westerling shows that between 1973 and 1982, fires burned for an average of six days. Between 2003 and 2012, this number skyrocketed to nearly seven and half weeks (52 days).

Are fires increasing in California? ›

Wildfire weather is increasing in California and much of the U.S., report finds. Wind whips embers from a hotspot during a wildfire in Castaic in 2022. A new report finds that the Western U.S. has become hotter and drier in ways that promote wildfires.


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