Timber is a crucial resource globally. We use it for everything from construction and furniture to paper production and producing energy. The timber industry currently generates around $1.5 trillion per year and employs over 33 million people across the globe. Timber demand is expected to almost triple by 2050, and timber will play an important role in net-zero efforts as it replaces more carbon-intensive construction materials such as concrete and steel.
Despite its increased use across the globe, wildfires and climate change poses a serious threat to global timber production. Record breaking wildfires such as the Australian Black Summer of 2019-2020, or those that have ripped through much of Canada this year highlight the serious threat wildfires pose to timber production. High-severity wildfires can burn through vast swathes of forest, eviscerating the trees as they move through, leaving behind little timber of any quality worth salvaging.
Wildfire burns through a forest in Victoria, Australia, 2009. Photo credit: David Lindenmayer
Whilst this is a clear and present threat, we still have a poor understanding of how much damage wildfires are causing to timber production globally, and whether this damage has been increasing in recent years. To address this, we combined satellite data describing the spatial footprint of timber production globally with global maps of forest-destroying wildfires in the 21st century, to find out where, and how much timber has burned already this century.
We found that since 2001, an area of forest being used for timber production roughly the size of Great Britain (19-25 M ha) has burned in high-severity wildfires, with timber worth a possible $45-77 billion all but lost. Concerningly, the burning was most widespread in some of our most important global timber producers such as the USA, Canada, Russia and Brazil.
In addition to this, we found the national extent of timber-producing forests in some countries has been decimated by wildfires. For example, Australia and Portugal have lost up to 10-14% of their entire timber production forest estate in just 20 years. Such large losses at the national scale will have serious economic consequences for years to come, and lead to increased reliance on timber imports from elsewhere to make up for the shortfall.
Salvage logging after wildfire. Photo credit: David Lindenmayer
Climate change is a strong driver of fire weather and behaviour, with further climate conditions expected to cause global increases in wildfire occurrence and severity. Looking at the annual burn area of timber producing forests since 2001, we found that there is already an increasing trend across most of the globe. All global regions except for Eurasia showed increasing trends in annual burned area of timber producing forests, as did some of the biggest timber producers in the world at the national scale, such as the US, Brazil and Canada. Globally, we found annual fire-driven losses of timber were two to four-fold higher in the past five years than the previous fifteen.
The increasing destruction of timber-producing forests through wildfires already in the 21st century, coupled with the elevated risk of wildfires in the future as climate change continues to take effect, poses a massive problem for global timber production. In many parts of the world, it can take 80-100 years for trees to grow to an age where they can be used in products like furniture and floorboards, but increasing fire prevalence under climate change means fewer areas will avoid wildfires long enough for these trees to mature.
Beyond timber production, wildfire-induced losses of timber could lead to increased demand for a restricted timber supply, and higher prices paid for timber. This could economically incentivise increased exploitation of the world’s tropical rainforests for timber, threatening the amazingly rich biota that call these forests home, and undermining global conservation goals.
One method for restricting fire-related loss of wood production could be to grow more of our wood in timber plantations. Plantations already produce a third of industrial roundwood in only 3% of the world’s forested area. When managed effectively, plantations can grow useable crops of trees in only a few decades, and even quicker in the tropics. This is a much shorter window of time for fires to occur in compared to native-logged forest systems. Australia, a country particularly threatened by wildfire activity, have already recognised this fact, with the States of Victoria and Western Australia introducing bans on native forest logging in favour of plantation production in the coming years.
Whilst plantations can produce a timber crop much quicker than native forestry, they are still extremely flammable, and should be located in less fire prone areas, and away from human communities to avoid the risk of fires spreading into populated areas. Plantation operators should also adopt the latest technologies to help detect and rapidly suppress fires at their most vulnerable stage, before small fires develop into blazing infernos. Some of our team have been involved in the development of drone fleets and unmanned aerial water and fire suppressant dispensing craft to detect and extinguish wildfires more rapidly.
Integration of these new technologies, as well as a shift towards increased plantation production will be vital for protecting native forests, and sustaining timber production and the industries that depend on it, in a more climatically hostile future.