Human exposure and sensitivity to globally extreme wildfire events


Extreme wildfires have substantial economic, social and environmental impacts, but there is uncertainty whether such events are inevitable features of the Earth’s fire ecology or a legacy of poor management and planning. We identify 478 extreme wildfire events defined as the daily clusters of fire radiative power from MODIS, within a global 10 × 10 km lattice, between 2002 and 2013, which exceeded the 99.997th percentile of over 23 million cases of the ΣFRP 100 km−2 in the MODIS record. These events are globally distributed across all flammable biomes, and are strongly associated with extreme fire weather conditions. Extreme wildfire events reported as being economically or socially disastrous (n = 144) were concentrated in suburban areas in flammable-forested biomes of the western United States and southeastern Australia, noting potential biases in reporting and the absence of globally comprehensive data of fire disasters. Climate change projections suggest an increase in days conducive to extreme wildfire events by 20 to 50% in these disaster-prone landscapes, with sharper increases in the subtropical Southern Hemisphere and European Mediterranean Basin.

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Figure 1: The methodological workflow used to identify and classify extremely energetic fire events (ΣFRP 100 km −2 ) in our MODIS record over the period 2002–2013.
Figure 2: Global distribution of 478 objectively defined extreme wildfire events, classified by those identified as being disasters (red triangles) or not (blue dots).
Figure 3: Plot of all extreme wildfire events classified as disastrous and non-disastrous according to our systematic web search of existing media reports and official records ordinated by a FWI percentile and human population.


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D.M.J.S.B. and G.J.W. have been supported by Australian Research

Council Linkage Grant (LLP130100146) and C.A.K., A.M.S.S. and J.T.A. were supported by the National Science Foundation under award DMS-1520873.

Author information




D.M.J.S.B. conceived the study and directed the project, G.J.W. conducted the MODIS data analysis and aggregation; C.A.K. and A.M.S.S. undertook the extreme fire event validation; J.T.A. undertook the climate analyses and M.A.C. contributed to the study design. All authors wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David M. J. S. Bowman.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1,2; Supplementary Table 1 (PDF 915 kb)

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Bowman, D., Williamson, G., Abatzoglou, J. et al. Human exposure and sensitivity to globally extreme wildfire events. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0058 (2017).

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