In recent weeks, the devastating effects of forest fires, which have killed more than 100 people and left thousands homeless, have made headlines around the world.
Several countries have reported their worst fires in decades, including hundreds of deadly fires across the Mediterranean. In Algeria, at least 90 people have been killed.
The Dixie Fire in California – the second largest in state history, and the Siberian wildfires are billed as some of the largest fires in recorded history.
According to European Space Agency, “fire affects approximately four million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles) of land each year.” To put that in context, it’s about half the size of the United States, bigger than India, or about four times the size of Nigeria.
To measure the extent and impact of these fires on the climate, vegetation and atmosphere, scientists use observations from several low-orbit satellites, including the Copernicus Sentinel-3. It brings together shortwave infrared data combined with other techniques to differentiate burnt areas and other low reflectance blankets such as clouds.
Forest fires on the rise
While forest fires are a natural part of many environments as a means of removing dead undergrowth and restoring nutrients, scientists have warned that they are more and more frequent and widespread.
In August, an alarming UN report blamed human activity for “unprecedented” climate changes. Scientists around the world have said that humanity will experience more extreme weather conditions in the years to come and suffer the consequences of rising sea levels and melting arctic ice.
Mark Diesendorf, associate professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told Al Jazeera that climate change is producing heat waves and droughts, which in turn create dry vegetation that feeds large fires.
According to Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, at least 470 wildfires – incidents that killed 10 or more people or affected more than 100 – have been reported worldwide since 1911, causing at least $ 120 billion in damage.
Forest fires in the Mediterranean
A heat wave in southern Europe, fed by hot air from Africa, has caused forest fires across the region. Hundreds of fires raged from Algeria to Jerusalem last month.
In Turkey, at least eight people have been killed since July 28 when hundreds of fires swept through the south. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the areas affected by the fires “disaster areas” and described them as the “worst forest fires” in the country’s history.
According to Husrev Ozkara, vice president of the Turkish Foresters Association, an average of 2,600 fires have broken out across the country each year over the past decade. In 2020, that figure has risen to nearly 3,400.
In neighboring Greece, more than 500 fires forced the evacuation of thousands of people as forests were burned by forest fires in Evia, the Peloponnese and Attica, including around the capital Athens. Two people were reportedly killed and at least 20 others injured.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the fires in Greece were unquestionably linked “to the reality of climate change”.
In Italy, firefighters have fought more than 500 fires in Sicily and southern Calabria. At least two people have died.
On August 12, a monitoring station in Sicily reported temperatures of 48.8 ° C (119.8 ° F) – levels which some scientists believe may be the highest in European history. Christian Solinas, president of the Sardinia region, called the fires “an unprecedented disaster”.
Fires also raged in the south of France, killing at least two people on Wednesday near Saint-Tropez, a seaside region known for its forests, vineyards and tourism.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who was on vacation nearby, visited the fire zone on Tuesday. He said the destroyed landscape was “absolutely terrible in terms of biodiversity and natural heritage… but lives had been protected”.
In Algeria, at least 90 people, including 33 soldiers, have been killed in forest fires, according to local authorities.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has declared three days of national mourning for the deadliest fires in the country’s history. Authorities blamed arsonists and “criminals” for the outbreaks and arrested dozens.
In Lebanon, forest fires spread to the forests of the Akkar region in late July. A 15-year-old who was helping firefighters put out the blaze was killed.
In Jerusalem, some of the worst fires in the region’s history were brought under control on Wednesday following a three-day firefight between Palestinian firefighters and the Israeli Air Force. No serious injuries were reported.
Forest fires have also broken out in the Mediterranean basin, particularly in Spain, Portugal and Morocco.
Dixie Fire in California
In the United States, the Californian Dixie Fire has been raging since mid-July. California fire authorities have announced the Tuesday that the wildfire now covered 253,637 hectares (626,751 acres) and remained 31% contained.
The blaze is currently the second largest blaze in California history and has destroyed more than 1,200 structures. It burned an area larger than the city of Houston, Texas, or at least twice the size of New York City.
Only the August 2020 complex fire, which consumed more than 404,685 hectares (one million acres) in California, was larger.
In neighboring Canada, hundreds of fires also swept the country following record temperatures in July.
Forest fires in Siberia
In Russia, uncontrollable fires have destroyed thousands of kilometers of the vast coniferous forests of Siberia in the largest and coldest region of the country.
According to Alexey Yaroshenko, forestry manager of Greenpeace Russia, the largest of these fires has exceeded 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) in size.
“This fire must grow from about 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) to become the largest in documented history,” Yaroshenko said.
The environmental group bases its figures on statistics from Russian fire departments.
According to Washington Post, Forest fires in Siberia are now bigger than the rest of the world’s fires combined.
The deadliest fires in history
According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, since 1911, forest fires have killed at least 4,545 people, injured 11,379 and affected more than 17 million people worldwide.
The Cloquet fire in Minnesota in 1918 was the deadliest on record, killing an estimated 1,000 people (including those unaccounted for).