• Social Series

Earth Overheating / Increasing Number of Wildfires Devastating People’s Lives

Yusuke Tomiyama / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr points to a spot on a map in Chibougamau, Quebec, Canada, on Nov.3.

With the United Nations is holding its COP28 climate summit in Dubai, this is the second installment of a series that looks at how climate change is threatening people’s livelihoods and measures being taken globally.

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“I thought this area would be free from natural disasters,” said a restaurant operator in Chibougamau, Quebec, eastern Canada, recalling how he fled a wildfire this summer.

A 30-year-old man was in tears as he evacuated in his car on the night of June 6, fearing that his house, his 2-year-old restaurant and the whole town could be razed to the ground.

The wildfire occurred on the outskirts of the town — which has a population of about 7,500 — and was advancing toward to a residential area, prompting Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr to issue an evacuation order for all residents for the first time since the town’s founding in 1954. According to Cyr, the flames were so violent that she feared a worst-case scenario could unfold.

However, thanks to firefighters’ efforts, the fire was contained before reaching the residential area and The restaurant owner was able to return home five days later. Nevertheless, he remains concerned that he might have to evacuate on a regular basis in the future.

Due to its humid climate, Quebec was thought to have a relatively low risk of wildfires. But extremely low rainfall this year caused grass and trees to dry out.

When the blaze broke out in June, the average temperature was two or three degrees higher than usual — in some areas, it was five degrees higher. Some 5.23 million hectares of forest have been turned to ashes across Quebec this year, a figure more than 23 times larger than those of the previous decade.

Wildfires are becoming more frequent and larger around the world. “Global warming is strongly affecting the situation,” said Keiji Kushida, professor of global environmental studies at Nihon University.

This year, the global average temperature for July was confirmed to be the highest on record, and wildfires broke out around the planet. In August, a devastating conflagration on the Hawaiian island of Maui killed about 100 people, while Greece experienced the largest wild inferno ever recorded in the European Union since 2000, killing and injuring many people.

Wildfires can occur when lightning striking dead leaves, among other reasons. According to James MacCarthy — a research associate on forest fire loss at the Washington-based policy research institution World Resources Institute — rising temperatures cause trees and grass to dry, making it easier for such fires to ignite and spread widely. Trees and grass produce carbon dioxide when they burn, causing the temperature to increase further, MacCarthy said.

Global warming and wildfires create negative synergies and it seems the situation may yet worsen further.

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Wildfire Smoke, Rising Temperatures Pose Various Health Concerns

Reuters
Dengue-infected people are seen in a hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in September.

“The amount and type of toxins in wildfire smoke increase as the blaze becomes larger and more intense, said Kanako Sekimoto, associate professor of atmospheric chemistry at Yokohama City University who has been studying the effects of wildfires. “This should be widely recognized as a health hazard.”

According to a study published by Stanford University last year, the number of people exposed to air pollution from wildfires in the United States at least one day a year has jumped 27-fold compared to 10 years ago.

A team of researchers from Australia and other countries released a study in 2021 that estimated the global death toll from air pollution caused by wildfires to be about 33,000 a year. They made their estimate by researching 749 cities in 43 countries and regions from 2000 to 2016.

Canada was hit by frequent wildfires over the summer, and their effects spread to neighboring countries. In early June, the skies over New York and other cities in the northeastern United States were thick with smoke. Sekimoto said, “Wildfires must be considered a global problem, not just a problem in the country where they occurred.”

Disaster-level extreme weather

On Nov. 1, organizations from the global health and medical community, including the World Medical Association headquartered in France, released an open letter ahead of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The letter noted, “Climate change-induced extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe; many countries are grappling with the health consequences of extreme heat, unprecedented storms, floods, food and water insecurity, wildfires and displacement.”

The letter cautioned world leaders that “without ambitious climate action, the burden on health care systems and health care workers will be insurmountable.”

Heatstroke highlights the health hazards caused by global warming. More than 200 people died of heatstroke in Mexico this summer, and it is estimated that over 70,000 people died in the heat waves that hit Europe last year.

Kazutaka Oka, senior researcher at the National Institute for Environmental Studies specializing in climate change adaptation, said: “The number of deaths due to heatstroke is already at disaster level. We must be aware that we are living in a different world from the one we were used to.”

Dengue fever spread

Global warming has brought about an increase in malaria, dengue fever and other infectious diseases transmitted by mosquitoes. According to statistics from the World Health Organization, the number of cases of dengue fever has increased eight-fold from approximately 500,000 in 2000 to 4.2 million in 2022, and case numbers continue to rise rapidly this year. This high-paced increase is believed to be due to the rise in temperature, which has extended the period in which mosquitoes can be active and allowed them to spread over wider areas.

Dengue fever claims many lives in developing countries where the medical environment is inadequate. According to media reports, Bangladesh’s health authority announced that the number of deaths in the country this year had reached a record 1,549 by the middle of November, more than five times higher than the same period last year.

“Japan can no longer consider this to be someone else’s problem,” said Shinji Kasai, director of Medical Entomology Department of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

According to the institute and others, in Japan, dengue fever transmitted by Aedes albopictus, or Asian tiger mosquito, spread in Tokyo in 2014, infecting approximately 160 people. In around 1950, the tiger mosquito’s northern limit was northern the Kanto region, but by around 2015, its distribution had spread to Aomori Prefecture and could reach Hokkaido if temperatures continue to rise.

“There is even a possibility that other species of mosquitos living in tropical and subtropical regions that transmit dengue fever will expand their reach to Japan, too,” Kasai said.