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How disasters are interconnected Covid and wildfires

Updated: Oct 21, 2021


12 OCTOBER 2021


  • Why Is COVID driving urban people to relocate in places prone to wildfire?

  • UN report: The world's record-breaking disasters are interconnected with each other -- and with our actions or inaction

  • WCPA note on pandemic recovery

  • News of IUCN, WCPA, and the Specialist Group

  • About Us: People, Publications, Themes, Projects

Why is COVID driving urban people to relocate in places prone to wildfire?

By TED TRZYNA, Specialist Group Chair

Extreme events are happening at an ever-increasing rate but we usually fail to see how they are interconnected with each other and with the decisions we make or avoid making. Here is an example of this phenomenon, which is described in the UN report described below, Interconnected Disaster Risks.

A fire crew wraps foil around the base of the world's largest tree, the General Sherman, in Sequoia National Park, September 2021. [USNPS]

As I write this in my home office in California a lightning-caused wildfire continues to spread in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, some 200 miles (325 km) to the north. Over 2,000 firefighters are on the ground, supported by helicopters and the latest space-based technology, but they are hindered by a rugged landscape and dense smoke.

Giant sequoias, Sequoiadendron giganteum (IUCN Endangered), the most massive trees on Earth, some of which are over 3,000 years old, grow in scattered groves in mixed conifer forest. Early assessments show that parts of some sequoia groves in these parks and adjacent areas have been "incinerated." The largest individual trees are getting special attention from fire crews and will likely survive, but many others will not.

This particular fire is getting a lot of publicity, as it should, but it is only one of many fires that have been burning across western North America in 2021. In the state of California alone, some 2.5 million acres (1m ha) have burned so far during the June-October fire season. Last year the figure was 4 million acres (1.6m ha), a record. Climate change, along with a "hotter drought" and built-up combustible litter due to suppression of past fires is making wildfires more frequent and more severe.

Yet a curious thing is happening. Across the United States more and more people are moving from cities to places along the wildland-urban interface, places at high risk for burning.

And the pandemic has accelerated this trend, according to reporting by Bloomberg City Lab. "During the first year of Covid-19, the number of U.S. households moving into areas with a recent history of wildfire increased 21 percent over the previous year. Areas without that recent history saw net moves fall by 15 percent."

A real estate agent who works in an area where dozens of houses were destroyed in a 2018 wildfire recently told Bloomberg, “Only a few clients in the last year or so have told me they don’t want to live here because the fire risk is too great . . . Covid erased people’s wildfire fears.”

Historically, people have migrated from cities to the edges of forests and woodlands for more affordable housing and to be closer to nature. Now they are motivated as well by fear of becoming infected by a virus.

From the perspective of nature conservation, building in such places destroys biodiversity. From a public safety perspective, more human activity next to wildlands increases the risk of fires and the cost of preventing and controlling them.

And ironically, from the point of view of public health, building along the urban-wildland interface can also facilitate emerging infectious diseases. Degradation of wildlife habitat, increased edge effect, and increased human-wildlife interaction are all major drivers of zoonotic diseases. The key factor is disturbance of the equilibrium between certain hosts and parasites. This is discussed in the Specialist Group's publication Urban Protected Areas (pages 65-67).

Getting back to the main question: Why does fear of Covid "erase people's wildfire fears"? The answer has to do with how the human mind works. Knowledge and reason are often outweighed by emotion and social pressure.

The lesson is that human behavior must be included among the interconnected factors to be considered in dealing with disasters such as pandemics and massive wildfires.

For IUCN, a step in the right direction was the recent adoption of Resolution WCC 2020 064, “Promoting conservation through behavior-centered solutions.”


Bloomberg City Lab Large California Wildfires: 2020 Fires in Historical Context California fire incidents U.S. National Interagency Fire Center Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre North American Forest Commission (Canada, U.S., Mexico) -- Fire Management Working Group

UN report: The world's record-breaking disasters are interconnected with each other -- and with our actions or inaction

Interconnected Disaster Risks is a new science-based report from the United Nations University that is set to become an annual publication.

According to UNU, the idea for the report came from the recognition that disasters are occurring at an ever-faster rate and, despite progress being made in how we prepare and respond to them, we are continuously being caught-out by new extremes and new emerging threats. "Because so many disasters happen around the world, they typically only receive attention from the media and the general public right as they occur; shortly thereafter, attention shifts to the next disaster. This means we rarely take the time to look at disasters in context and ask questions such as: why did this happen, what are the processes that allowed for this to occur in the first place, and what will be the consequences in the months or years to come?

"When these questions are not answered, disasters appear as isolated events, when in reality, they are not. In fact, disasters are much more interconnected than one might expect, not just with each other, but also with our actions as humans. If we want to prevent them or prepare for them, we need to first understand the bigger picture of what is driving them.

"The report analyses 10 interconnected disasters that took place in 2020-2021. They were selected for their notoriety and representation of larger global issues, which have changed or will change our lives across the world."

Almost all of them relate in some way to protected and conserved areas. 1. Amazon Wildfires – Wildfires fueled by global appetite 2. Arctic Heatwave – Spiraling into a climate disaster 3. Beirut Explosion – When the global community abandons ship 4. Central Viet Nam Floods – When being prepared is no longer enough 5. Chinese Paddlefish Extinction – The fish that survived the dinosaur extinction but not humankind 6. COVID-19 Pandemic – How a pandemic is showing us the value of biodiversity 7. Cyclone Amphan – When a cyclone and a pandemic combine 8. Desert Locust outbreak – How manageable risks spin out of control 9. Great Barrier Reef bleaching – Losing more than a natural wonder 10. Texas cold wave – A preventable catastrophe?

Interconnected Disaster Risks, United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security, Bonn, 2021.

WCPA note on pandemic recovery looks at the bigger picture

As if responding to Interconnected Disaster Risks, the UN report described above, WCPA has just posted a technical note that looks at the role of protected and conserved areas in reducing the risk of future pandemics in the context of "the overlapping trajectories of biodiversity loss, climate change, and unsustainable development." Taking the broad view is nothing new for IUCN, but like everyone else we could probably benefit from doing more of it. This is a good example.

Nature-based COVID-19 Recovery: Investing in Protected and Conserved Areas for Planetary Health, IUCN WCPA Technical Note Series No. 4, 2021.

News of IUCN, WCPA & the Specialist Group

During the IUCN World Conservation Congress held partly online and partly onsite in Marseille, France, in September officers were elected for 2021-2025 and numerous motions were passed. Results: IUCN Council. Resolutions and Recommendations. IUCN's new President is Ms Razan Al Mubarak of the United Arab Emirates. The new Chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas is Ms Madhu Rao of India and the UK, who is based in Singapore. For more about the Congress, see the latest issue of the WCPA Protected Planet newsletter.

Preparing for this leadership transition, the steering committee of the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group has reviewed the group's progress, priorities, and structure and has given Ms Rao its recommendations for the next several years. Within its broad urban brief, these include orienting its work as much as possible to tackling the interdependent crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and zoonotic disease; and continuing to focus on things that have been overlooked or neglected by others. This has meant going in some new and unexpected directions, as is explained in About the Specialist Group on the home page of our website. See also About us, below.

About us

The IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group is part of the World Commission on Protected Areas of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Specialist Group works to strengthen the ability of conservationists to serve urban people, urban places, and urban institutions. Protected and conserved areas are a central theme. We focus on problems and opportunities that have been overlooked or neglected by others.


CONTACT: Secretariat P.O. Box 99, Claremont, California 91711 US Please use email

Ted Trzyna, Chair David Goldstein, Co-Chair Steering Committee

ABOUT THE SPECIALIST GROUP: History / Our own strategy / Urban people and wild nature depend on each other / Timeline

FLAGSHIP PUBLICATIONS: * Urban Protected Areas (in English, French, Portuguese, Chinese) * The Urban Imperative

OUR PEOPLE: Photo gallery / Membership / Leadership

FOCAL CITIES List / Spirit of place as a practical conservation tool SPECIALIST GROUP THEMES

URBAN PROTECTED AND CONSERVED AREAS Online resources / Urban protected areas: A matter of critical concern

DARK SKIES Managing artificial light to protect natural systems and for appreciation of the night sky

LONG-DISTANCE TRAILS Long-distance trails as conservation tools


IUCN & URBAN DIMENSIONS OF CONSERVATION Defining an urban role for IUCN / IUCN Resolution



This project aims to connect people to natural areas and historic sites where they live. It does so by promoting metropolitan and regional alliances of conservation and historic preservation agencies, museums, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, and their allies.

When people understand the place where they live, they are more likely to want to protect its identity, heritage, and quality of life -- and they are more likely to support conservation of biodiversity globally.

A priority is relating local trends to global climate change and loss of biodiversity.

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This initiative originated in the Natural Neighbors project, which made us realize that places associated with extraordinary people, events, and ideas can serve as tangible symbols of the kind of imagination, exploration, and moral behavior that is needed to move the world toward greater justice and sustainability. We believe putting a spotlight on them will help change minds and inspire action. Global Beacons of Hope is an independent project still in early stages.

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Natural Neighbors and Global Beacons of Hope are registered service marks.

The secretariat of the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group is provided by InterEnvironment Institute, an IUCN Member since 1980.

OUR URBAN MANTRA - To copy this image from a web page, go to

NEWS | IDEAS | CONNECTIONS Newsletter of the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group Editor

This is not an official IUCN newsletter. Views expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of IUCN or the persons or other organizations mentioned. Designation of geographical entities does not imply any opinion concerning the legal status of any country, territory, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of frontiers or boundaries.

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