The damaging consequences of fires can be significant beyond their local area as well. Whilst hundreds of people may die in wildfires in any particular year, early deaths from the air quality impacts of landscape fires more likely number in the hundreds of thousands.
Larger and more longer-lived fires affect not only local air quality, but also that of neighbouring countries, and in terms of long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, fires can influence the atmosphere of the entire planet.
Tropical peatlands for example contain 'fossil' carbon, formed from plant debris formally held in mostly forest vegetation. This carbon-rich material is now stored in the ground as peat soil, which can be hundreds or even thousands of years old. These peatlands are naturally wet and fire retardant, but when cleared of forest and drained of much of their moisture during attempts to use them as agricultural land they can dry out and the soil itself can burn.
Whilst the majority of climate change is associated with atmospheric carbon dioxide increases related to the burning of oil, coal and gas, along with deforestation fires these tropical peat fires are currently believed to be responsible for something like 15 percent of annual atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. The numbers are uncertain however, and we need to know them more accurately to target policies more effectively.
Programmes such as the United Nations 'Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation' (REDD+) aim to contribute to reducing the rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide increase by helping developing nations reduce these types of CO2 emissions, whilst industries and economies of developed nations in particular ultimately transition to lower fossil fuel use.
We also need to ensure long term climate models are operating as accurately as possible, by including fire, its controls and its feedbacks more accurately within them in order to underpin future policies better as well as to provide a clearer understanding of the role of fires in the Earth system.