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The List: The World’s Worst Forest Fires

Fanned by climate change and systemic corruption, wildfires are becoming an increasingly dangerous phenomenon everywhere from Portugal to Siberia.

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Australia

Fire season: December to January

Damage report: Summers in Australia are notable for two things: barbecues and bush fires. Australia is currently facing its worst drought in a century, which for the past few years has lead to more frequent and severe bush fires. In January 2003, a bush fire in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory blazed through a region almost the size of the U.S. state of Texas, destroying 500 homes and killing four people, to say nothing of the thousands of sheep and cattle caught in the conflagration. And from late 2006 to early 2007, firefighters in Australias southern state of Victoria battled some of the worst bush fires in Australias history for 50 rainless days in a row and had to call for backup from New Zealand and U.S. smoke jumpers. Meanwhile, humidity levels in Australia hit record lows of between 3 and 5 percent (20 percent humidity is considered a serious fire threat).

Future trends: Scary. Bush fire season began months earlier than usual last summer, and theres been little respite from the drought. Australian government scientists warn that climate change will continue to produce more-frequent hot weather and less rainfall. During the next few decades, they predict, the frequency of days with very high fire danger will increase between 20 and 30 percent.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GettyImages

Greece

Fire season: June to August

Damage report: In 2006, wildfires caused by lightning ravaged the Halkidiki peninsula in the north, a summer holiday destination especially popular with Britons. More than 1,000 tourists had to be evacuated. Then in 2007, Greece experienced its worst forest fires in recorded history when blazes raged from the north of the country to the south. More than 60 people died, and hundreds of homes and an area of forest about the size of Rhode Island were destroyed. Even the archaeological ruins in Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, were threatened. Greeces prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, declared a state of emergency and said the country was facing an unspeakable tragedy. Government and forestry officials blamed arsonists for triggering many of the blazes, but a long, dry summer and an intense heat wave helped fan the flames as well.

Future trends: Possibly bleak. Not only are forest fires a seasonal hazard in Greece, typically destroying an area about the size of 227,000 football fields every summer, but arsonists have strong economic incentives to cause them. Greeces construction industry is booming and demand for land is soaring. Although forested land cannot be developed, burned forest land can be reclassified as former farmland, making way for development.

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Indonesia

Fire season: Year-round, with heightened risk between February and September

Damage report: Ever since the massive wildfire in Indonesia between 1982 and 1983, one of the 20th centurys largest, forest fires have been a sadly familiar event in the country. The regions of Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo) and Sumatra are particularly afflicted. A severe wildfire season in 1986 drew complaints about air quality and economic damage from neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, but it wasnt until fierce forest fires from September 1997 to April 1998made dramatically worse by the El Nio effect, an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that causes drier conditions in this regionthat Indonesia truly became a regional outcast. Countries as distant as Australia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka protested about the resulting gray haze and loss of air quality. In the worst-affected areas of Indonesia, simply breathing became equivalent to smoking 80 packs of cigarettes a day. Since fire is used as a cheap land-clearing tool to make way for cash crops, forest fires in Indonesia are almost invariably human-induced. But given that 10 million hectares of land burned in the 1997-1998 fires, its clear these controlled burns can quickly get out of control.

Future trends: Worrisome. Last years forest fires in Indonesia were the worst since 2006, but the fact that Indonesias fires are primarily caused by humans and not by environmental factors offers some hope. Indonesian law forbids forest burning; the only question is whether Indonesias leaders can summon the political will to take on the arsonists.

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Portugal

Fire season: July to August

Damage report: For the past five years, Portugal has faced some of the most deadly forest fires in Europe. In 2003, unusually hot, dry air and strong winds impacted almost 6 percent of the countrys forests, burned more than 350,000 hectares of land, and caused massive soil erosion that affected water supplies and agriculture. Fifteen people died, and the damage added up to an estimated 1 billion euros. Then in 2005, during a severe drought, five major fires swept across Portugal. The largest struck an area north of Lisbon and stretched for more than 13 miles. Again, more than 300,000 hectares of forest were burned and at least 18 people died, including a number of firefighters.

Future trends: Recent summers have been calmer than 2005, but they could get worse. Climate scientists fear that Portugals summers may be getting hotter and longer, which means more drought and more fires. In fact, Portugal has seen a 300 percent increase in the area lost to fires during the last two decadesan ominous sign. The good news is that Portugal has access to help from other European countries through the European Commissions Monitoring and Information Centre, which played an important role in quelling the 2005 fires. Next time, Portugal may need all the help it can get.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Russia

Fire season: June to October

Damage report: Summer can be a brutal time of year for Siberia. The regions fragile boreal foreststhe worlds largest and a vital piece of the planets ecosystemhave seen a 10-fold increase in forest fires during the past 20 years, Russian scientists calculate. Russia lost 11.7 million hectares to forest fires in 2002 and another 23.7 million hectares in 2003an area almost the size of Britain. Since the start of the 2007 fire season, more than 140,000 forest fires covering a million hectares have been recorded. Fires are frequently ignited by lightning and are often so remote that its difficult to tackle them effectively. This year, Russias uphill battle against forest fires has sucked in more than 8,000 people and almost 1,500 units of equipment, including 72 helicopters and planes.

Future trends: Dire. Scientists attribute the rise in Siberias forest fires to climate change, which means they may only get worse. Annual temperatures in Siberia have risen twice as fast as the global average, by almost 2 degrees Celsius, for the past 18 years. But perhaps even more alarming is the role of arson in Russias forest fires. Russian scientists suspect that illegal loggers, who hope to benefit from the greater value of timber after a fire, are responsible for some of these fires. The arsonists, or their sponsors, can also gain access to cheaper logging licenses in fire-afflicted areas. Unless and until the Russian government decides that licenses to log in burnt timber areas wont be discounted, or that burnt timber is no longer up for sale, Russian scientists and environmentalists may be fighting an uphill battle to preserve Siberias ecosystem.

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