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Why wildfires happen: Debunking the myth that arson is to blame more than climate change

(CNN) Wildfires tearing across the Mediterranean have killed dozens of people and reduced entire villages to ash. Some leaders have emphasized the role of arsonists in the devastation, while others have been accused of using climate change as a cover for their own poor disaster management. The result is a confusing message of who and what is to blame.

Fires have raged in Greece, Northern Macedonia, Turkey, Algeria, Italy and Cyprus in recent days. Firefighters in the US, too, have been battling blazes across 15 states as the Dixie Fire, California's second largest ever, continues to grow. Last month, parts of Siberia and British Columbia both experienced the largest fires in years.

Italian minister for ecological transition Roberto Cingolani acknowledged the role of climate change in the disaster, but he made a point recently of emphasizing that 70% of the countries fires were caused by humans -- either accidentally or on purpose.

In Algeria, where 65 people, including 25 soldiers, died because of wildfires in recent days, the interior minister Kamel Beldjoud struck a similar tone.

"We've known about wildfires for a long time. Dozens at the same time is definitely a criminal act," he told Al-Nahar TV Tuesday.

Conversely, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been accused of blaming the role of climate change in the fires to deflect criticism for poor forest management and disaster preparedness.

After backlash, he was forced to clarify that he meant climate change was "the explanation, but not an excuse, or an alibi." He reasserted, however, that his government has "done everything that was humanly possible, but in many cases this did not seem to be enough in the unequal battle with nature."

Volunteers try to control fire in the Municipality of Blufi near Palermo, Sicily, Italy.

What's the role of climate change?

Questions are now being raised around who and what is to blame for the fires. Climate change, arsonists, or both?

While there are many factors that influence wildfires, it is climate change that is making them bigger and more frequent, and is causing them to happen in places where they previously weren't very common.

Hikmet Ozturk, a forestry expert with the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, an NGO, said that while 95% of fires in Turkey are caused by people, the spread of the fires is worsened by climate change.

Local residents fight the wildfire in the village of Gouves on the Evia in Greece.

"Typical weather conditions in the summer for the area is hot and dry, which means the risk of fires is already high, and climate change raises that risk," he said.

Europe recorded its second hottest July on record this year, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, with much of southeastern Europe experiencing severe heatwaves at the end of the month.

And the extreme heat is continuing in August: On Wednesday, Europe's all-time heat record was unofficially broken -- the data still needs to be validated -- when the temperature reached 48.8 degrees Celsius (120 F) in the Sicilian city of Syracuse, according to the Sicilian Agrometeorological Information Service (SIAS).

A landmark report published Monday by the UN's International Panel on Climate Change said that 38 weather conditions that promote wildfires have become more probable in southern Europe over the last century. Globally, the heat waves and droughts worsening fires have increased too.

It found that between 1979 and 2013, "the global burnable area affected by long fire-weather seasons doubled, and the mean length of the fire-weather season increased by 19%," even though at the global scale, the total burned area decreased between 1998 and 2015 due mostly to changes in land use.

"In summary, there is high confidence that concurrent heat waves and droughts have increased in frequency over the last century at the global scale due to human influence. There is medium confidence that weather conditions that promote wildfires (fire weather) have become more probable in southern Europe, northern Eurasia, the US, and Australia over the last century," the report said.

In other words, these longer and more intense heat waves and droughts in many places on the planet mean there is more fuel available because vegetation is dry and available to burn for longer.

"With higher temperatures, more fuel will be dry and the relative humidity of the air will be lower. Both of these factors contribute to faster moving and more intense wildfires, with larger flames and more energy, making them harder to fight by firefighters on the ground," said Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics.

The role of people

Smith said the answer to the question of what's to blame -- climate change, arson or forest management -- isn't straightforward.

"Neither of the polarized views that are emerging are correct," he said, adding that wildfires are complex phenomenons caused by many different factors, from weather that is influenced by climate change to vegetation, natural ignitions and human activities.

People are responsible for starting many of the most devastating wildfires. Arsonists might be looking to cause damage, but others have been deliberately staring fires too.

In the Amazon, farmers and loggers have long been known to set fires to clear land for grazing and crops. Others are started by neglected power infrastructure or by an accident -- like the deadly El Dorado fire in California last year that was allegedly sparked by a gender reveal party gone wrong.

But in most cases, the human influence goes way beyond the striking of a match.

Smith said that recent changes in land management play a big role in some areas where fire has always been part of the natural cycle -- for example in the US West.

"For thousands of years that land was probably being managed by the traditional owners, the indigenous population. Using fire has always been part of that landscape," he said.

"But those practices have been abandoned over the last 150 years or so and that has led to a change in the amount of fuel that's on the ground. The ecosystem gets a bit more biomass, a bit more fuel heavy, and then when you do have these fires, they tend to be more destructive, because there's more stuff to burn because the land hasn't been frequently managed using fire."

The fact that climate change is making wildfires more ferocious doesn't mean people aren't to be blamed. The opposite is true -- the IPCC has concluded that it's now "unequivocal" that humans have caused the climate crisis in the first place.

So as fires continue to burn across large swaths of the world, people have to face up to the truth -- wildfires are made worse by the climate crisis. The climate crisis was caused by people.

Chris Liakos, Elinda Labropoulou, Amy Woodyatt, Gul Tuysuz, Kareen El Damanhoury, Hannah Ritchie and Mostafa Salem contributed reporting.