Wildfires Aren’t Just a Threat to People—They’re Killing Off Earth’s Biodiversity
Cataclysmic wildfires have been increasing in intensity and frequency due to human-caused climate change.
The catastrophic wildfires that raged across California, Oregon, and Washington state in 2020 consumed around 5 million acres of dry forest. And in one week alone, they caused at least 24 fatalities. “I drove 600 miles up and down the state, and I never escaped the smoke,” Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said on the ABC News television show “This Week With George Stephanopoulos. “We have thousands of people who have lost their homes. I could have never envisioned this.”
The firefighters were battling the deadly blazes as the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly convened in September 2020 at the UN headquarters in New York. One of the high-level meetings was the Summit on Biodiversity. Strikingly, the hot-button issue of wildfires was not mentioned in the event program, even though wildfires continue to pose a direct threat to biodiversity across the planet. A 2020 report by WWF found that there has been a 68 percent average decline in species population sizes since 1970. The underlying cause: humanity.
Wildfires Threaten Wildlife
Cataclysmic wildfires—the intensity and frequency of which have been increased by human-caused climate change—are not just an American phenomenon and impact far more than human life, trees, and the built environment. “[A]s many as 1.25 billion animals—including iconic Australian species such as koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and gliders—have been killed or displaced by the fires,” Earth | Food | Life (EFL) reporter Robin Scher wrote on Truthout about Australia’s “Black Summer,” the colloquial name of the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, which was unusually intense. “In some instances, certain species may have even gone extinct,” Scher reported.
Writing about the Amazon wildfires for Truthout, EFL reporter Daniel Ross noted the “illegal logging, encroachment from agribusinesses and profit-driven government policies” that underpin Brazil’s wildfires, which have impacted wildlife, threatened Indigenous communities, and created an air pollution-related health crisis in the nation’s urban areas. Fires that raged in Brazil’s Amazon in 2020 even spread into virgin forests.
In addition, the fires—many of which are illegally started to create pasture for cows that supply the nation’s multibillion-dollar beef industry—have created a dangerous situation for the global climate. “New research suggests that some deforested regions of the rainforest are exhaling more carbon dioxide than they’re taking in,” Ross reported. And make no mistake: a rapidly and unnaturally changing climate is a direct threat to the planet’s biodiversity, the variety of life on Earth that provides the foundation for a host of life-supporting ecological services such as clean air, clean water, healthy soil, and crops, plant pollination, pest control, wastewater treatment, and outdoor recreation.
Calls for Action
Some organizations are fighting back. Amnesty International reported that “63 percent of the [Brazilian Amazon] deforested from 1988 to 2014 has become pasture for cattle—a land area five times the size of Portugal.” In August 2020, the group launched a public petition urging the Brazilian company JBS, the world’s largest meat supplier, to take cows that have been illegally grazed on protected lands out of their supply chain. In the same month, Care2 also launched a public petition—signed by more than 120,000 people—urging the Brazilian government to ban the human-created fires that are destroying the Amazon rainforest.
In September 2020, JBS pledged it would introduce, by 2025, a new system to monitor both its direct and indirect cattle suppliers. However, Amnesty criticized the announcement, saying that the “timeline too far removed.” The group pointed out that “JBS has been aware of the risks that cattle illegally grazed in protected areas may enter its supply chain since at least 2009, and previously pledged to monitor its indirect suppliers by 2011.”
In July 2020, BirdLife International, a global partnership of non-governmental organizations working to conserve birds and their habitats, launched a public petition—already signed by more than 120,000 people—urging the United Nations to recognize the right to a healthy natural environment at the UN Human Rights Council, in the UN General Assembly, and ultimately in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Worst-Case Scenarios Becoming a Reality
“We must completely change the way we treat our home,” the group writes. “Human rights movements have a long and successful track record at transforming society and, with governments meeting in September  to discuss the fate of our planet at key UN meetings, there has never been a greater need for action.”
“The choking smoke cast a dark pall over the skies and created a vision of climate-change disaster that made worst-case scenarios for the future a terrifying reality for the present,” reported the New York Times about the wildfires that blazed across the western United States in 2020. That terrifying reality could go on for generations to come if we don’t get a handle on the climate crisis.
In September 2022, climate journalist and native Oregonian Emma Pattee wrote in the New York Times that “[c]limate scientists estimate that the frequency of large wildfires could increase by over 30 percent in the next 30 years and over 50 percent in the next 80 years, thanks in large part to drought and extreme heat caused by climate change.” That is a frightening prospect not just for humans, but for the countless nonhuman animals with whom we share this planet.