Firefighters practice putting out forest fires in Indonesia. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

What does COVID-19 mean for forest fires?

As the peak of fire season approaches in the tropics, the pandemic could heighten its effects

Last year, forest fires – particularly those that blazed in the Amazon, Indonesia and the Congo Basin – lit up the headlines in international media.

This year, it’s the spread and impacts of COVID-19 that’s dominating the news cycle.

But scientists in a briefing facilitated by Colombia University’s Earth Institute on 17 June warned that if we let the pandemic eclipse this year’s upcoming fire season, which generally peaks in the months of July, August and September in the tropics, it could be to our peril: air pollution from seasonal, anthropogenic forest fires is likely to seriously exacerbate the pandemic’s impact in tropical countries.

“One of the reasons that fires are so devastating is of course the deforestation and the effects […] to the ecosystems that are directly affected by the fire,” said Harvey Fineberg, a physician and researcher who is the president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “But in this year, it’s especially concerning because the small particulate matter, the smoke, the soot that is emanating from these fires exacerbate respiratory infection.”

He also pointed out that if people are forced to evacuate their homes due to fire and to stay in communal emergency housing, “it’s well-documented that in those locations – especially when there’s respiratory susceptibility, especially when there are less than ideal sanitary conditions – [people] will become very, very susceptible to rapid spread of COVID.” 

And that means additional strain on already-stretched health systems, said Marcia Castro, who chairs the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She explained how in the Amazon region, hospitalization rates for respiratory illness already run high during the annual fire season, and in combination with COVID-19, these systems are likely to be overwhelmed.

The region has some of the lowest levels of hospital beds and physicians per person in the country, and 90 percent of those beds are currently occupied in several Amazon cities, largely due to the spread of the coronavirus, well before the fire season has properly begun. “An intense fire season could have devastating public health consequences, with the unnecessary loss of many lives and the widening of local inequalities,” said Castro. “There is really no option other than preventing those fires from happening.”

And that’s a challenging remit. according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), this year’s Amazon fire season is likely to be just as intense as last year’s – and it could well be worse, given that deforestation rates there are at their fastest in 13 years, with up to 4,500 square kilometers (1740 square miles) already felled and ready to burn.

So far, according to IPAM’s director of science Ane Alencar, policy and action to mitigate the entwined phenomena of deforestation and forest fires is sorely lacking. Political leadership is crucial for mitigating deforestation and staving off illegal activities, yet sorely lacking. She said that national and international communities could help by putting pressure on companies that buy products from Brazilian agribusiness to ensure their goods are deforestation-free. “This is one way of getting out of this situation and pressing the government to actually respect this patrimony that we have, which is the forest,” she said.

This doesn’t need to come at the expense of livelihoods and economic growth: in the early 2000s, the country succeeded at cutting its deforestation rates considerably while increasing exports of a number of commodities. “We know how to do it, and we can do it again,” said Castro. In fact, she added, monitoring systems have vastly improved in recent years, and there is information clearly available on which areas are being deforested and by whom.

In Indonesia, the national weather agency predicts this year’s fire season to be milder than last year’s, when the El Niño weather system fueled higher temperatures and more intense fires than usual, particularly in the remote peatland regions of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

“The inability to get the firefighters to those places and to train them and prepare and get the resources ready for the fire season… I would imagine that it’s certainly not getting the attention it needs, partially because of the COVID crisis,” said Ruth DeFries, a professor of sustainable development at Columbia University. “

She also said that incentives not to burn in the first place might be just as important as law enforcement and consumer pressure on deleterious practices from companies. “The reason that people use fire is because it’s cheap and it’s easy. You set fire to your debris and you let it burn, and then you have your land cleared,” she said. “Incentives…to not burn is where I think we need to go.”



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