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Chapter 8. Fires


The 1990s were marked by periods of severe drought, setting the stage for devastating wildfires in practically every corner of the world. The widespread public, media and political attention focused on these wildfires caused decision-makers and resource management agencies to concentrate on policies and practices that could reduce the flammability and vulnerability of wildland ecosystems in the future. An FAO sponsored Meeting on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires brought together 71 participants from 33 countries and 13 international organizations in October 1998 to develop recommendations to strengthen the fire management capacity of FAO member countries. Participants indicated that a global fire information system was needed to provide immediate access to real-time data and information on fires.

Based on the need for this global fire information system, FRA 2000 initiated a Global Fire Assessment for the 1990s. FAO requested member countries to complete a Fire Management Country Profile which highlighted essential information and data. This chapter summarizes the results of the compilation of fire management information for FAO's six geographical regions (FAO 2001).

Following the summary of regional fire management highlights, several conclusions are drawn characterizing the global fire situation in the 1990s. Policy-makers are beginning to realize that continued emphasis only on emergency response will not prevent large and damaging fires in the future. Emergency preparedness and response programmes must be coupled with better land use policies and practices. Active work towards sustainable forestry practices with community involvement is an important strategy for better conservation of natural resources together with reduced impacts of wildfires.


Severe forest fires around the world gained international attention during the 1990s. Millions of hectares burned in 1997 and 1998 and smoke blanketed large regions of the Amazon Basin, Central America, Mexico and Southeast Asia, disrupting air and sea navigation and causing serious public health problems. Significant losses of forest vegetation and biomass resulted. Ecosystems generally not subject to fires, such as the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and the cloud forest of Chiapas in Mexico, sustained considerable damage. The global wildfire situation in 1999-2000 was again serious, although on a smaller scale. Fires were widespread in Indonesia in 1999 and 2000, but not on a scale comparable to 1997-1998. The major fires of 2000 occurred in Ethiopia, the eastern Mediterranean and the western United States.

These were "headline news" fires, but widespread fires in many places of the world do not reach the international press. Hundreds of thousands to millions of hectares burn annually in fire-adapted ecosystems in dry west Africa, large areas of Africa south of the equator, central Asia, southern South America and Australia. For example, during the 2000 fire season as much as 200 million hectares south of the equator in Africa (including savannahs and grasslands) may have burned. Prevention and control of these recurring and widespread fires could reduce adverse impacts on ecosystems and the livelihoods of local people.

Comprehensive national, regional or global statistics on wildland fires are not available that would allow a reliable and precise comparison of global fire occurrence in the 1980s and 1990s. However, some general observations can be made. Both decades experienced high annual variability in regional and national fire occurrence and impacts. El Niño episodes, such as in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998, were the most important climatic factor affecting area burned and fire impacts in both decades. In these years most of tropical Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania experienced extreme wildfire situations. During 1997-1998, the number of land-clearing fires and other escaped fire situations increased in the equatorial forest regions of Southeast Asia and South America.

Figure 8-1. Global availability of wildfire data

The northern temperate and boreal forest zones also experienced extremely dry years in both decades. Central eastern Asia was affected most severely in 1987, particularly Siberia in the Russian Federation and northeastern China. The Russian Far East was also severely affected during the 1998 drought.

Statistical evidence from Canada suggests that there has been an increasing trend in area burned starting in the early 1980s and continuing into the 1990s. Wildland fire statistics for National Forests in the United States show a similar increase from the mid-1980s onwards. However, a change in fire response strategies in Canada and unnatural fuel accumulations in the United States as a result of long-term fire exclusion help to explain some of these changes.

In summary, there was no worldwide trend during the past two decades. Some areas suffered more fires because of increasing land use intensity. Other regions have become more susceptible to larger and more damaging fires as a result of long-term fire exclusion. Another important consideration is the large areas of degraded forests and other wooded lands that have been converted to grassland and shrubland through repeated fires. These lands are much more prone to frequent burning, which also prevents a return to tree cover.


Fire data are compiled for industralized countries and published by UNECE/FAO as Forest Fire Statistics every two years. However, as global data are not available, FAO member countries were requested to complete a standard questionnaire on forest fire data. Unfortunately this met with little success, so a standardized fire profile was developed which enabled countries to complete thematic information even in the absence of numeric data. These profiles, completed by 47 countries, describe how fires affect people and natural resources and how the countries are organized to manage fires. The profiles are displayed on FAO's Web pages and aggregated in Global forest fire assessment: 1990-2000, an FRA Working Paper (FAO 2001).

The fire situation in the six geographical regions, Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, North and Central America and the Caribbean and South America, is summarized in FAO (2001). Fire management highlights from the six regions are presented in the following section.

A map was prepared depicting the availability of global fire data based on data collected by the UNECE and by the submission of data by countries to the Global Fire Assessment (Figure 8-1).



Africa is often referred to as the "fire continent" owing to the regular and widespread occurrence of wildland fires. This description is equally pertinent to southern, western and eastern Africa where the savannah biome is a major plant community. Africa is highly prone to lightning storms and has a fire climate with both dry and wet periods, where fires can burn the fuels produced and accumulated during the wet, rainy period. Although lightning was the primary ignition source of fires in the Africa savannahs in the past, the situation today is one where humans have become more important than lightning as a source of ignition. Africa has the most extensive area of tropical savannah in the world, characterized by a grassy understorey that becomes extremely flammable during the dry season.

Most wildland fires in Africa burn in fire-adapted ecosystems. A recent research report by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) indicated that about 130 million hectares of savannahs and grasslands burn annually in Africa south of the equator (for comparison, the country of South Africa covers an area of 122 million hectares). The heaviest burning is concentrated in the moist subtropical belt which includes Angola, the southern Congo, Zambia, northern Mozambique and southern United Republic of Tanzania. During the 2000 fire season, the area burned south of the equator may have reached more than 200 million hectares.

A case study from the Central African Republic showed that in the second half of the 1990s just over 43 percent of Sudanian savannahs (equal to 8.6 million hectares) and 58 percent of Guineo-Congolian/Sudanian savannahs (equal to about 62 million hectares) burned.

In Ethiopia, the delayed onset of the rainy season and increasing land use pressure resulted in an extreme wildfire season in early 2000. Land conversion burning and escaping fires led to large-scale wildfires, particularly in the montane south. The government called for international assistance and a coalition of countries (Germany, South Africa, Canada and the United States) responded. By the end of the dry season in April 2000, however, more than 100 000 ha of montane forests had been severely affected or destroyed by fire.

Fire is an important danger to forests of the North African countries. In Morocco, the number of annual fires has increased from 150 to 200, and the annual area burned has increased from 2 000 to 3 100 ha, since the 1970s.


The Asian region suffered extreme wildfire and smoke episodes during the 1990s. Insular Southeast Asia was most affected by several El Niño - Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events in the 1990s, particularly during the extreme ENSO in 1997-1998. Extended droughts favoured the application of land use fires, forest conversion burning (use of fire in land use change) and extended wildfire situations. The fires have caused impoverishment or destruction of primary and secondary equatorial rain forest ecosystems over large areas. Indonesia was the main source of smoke-haze that affected the entire region for almost one year and affected the health of more than 100 million people living in the region.

Continental South and Southeast Asia continued to experience extended wildfires in the seasonal (deciduous) forests, e.g. monsoon forests and forest savannahs. Human-induced wildfires in the deciduous forests have been common through history. As a traditional element of forest utilization, especially for improving grazing conditions (silvopastoral land use) or for improving productivity or facilitating harvest of non-wood forest products, these fires partially represent prescribed burning systems. However, many of the fires are not contained and tend to escape as extended wildfires.

In Central Asia, the region most challenged by fire is between the steppe and southern boreal forests. Steppe fires exert a tremendous pressure on the adjoining forests. Political and socio-economic changes in Mongolia during the 1990s were the major reasons for a dramatic increase in wildfire occurrence. Campfires set by inexperienced cattle herders and collectors of non-wood forest products as well as an increase in other forest uses because of deteriorating economic conditions are the main causes of escaping wildfires. Very serious fire seasons affected forested and steppe lands on 10.2 million hectares in 1996 (including 2.36 million hectares of forest) and 12.4 million hectares in 1997 (including 2.71 million hectares of forest). Forests are most seriously affected by fire in the transition zone between steppe and the montane-boreal dense forest.

In China, the main fire regions are in Inner Mongolia (with fire features similar to Mongolia), the montane-boreal forest in the northeast and the southern tropical forests. Advanced fire management systems, including the use of remote sensing for detecting and monitoring fires, are in place. In early 1999 a severe spring drought affected the whole of central Asia and led to widespread forest and steppe fires.

Seasonally dry forests in the continental Southeast Asian countries exhibited typical seasonal burning patterns affecting several million hectares in 1999-2000. Although most of these forests are fire-adapted, fire protection contributes to increased productivity, soil conservation and reduction of erosion, runoff and subsequent flooding. After the 1997-1998 fire and smoke episode in Southeast Asia, Thailand established a self-funded Forest Fire Management Centre which will serve as a centre of excellence in fire management training and research for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region.

In insular Southeast Asia the total land area affected by fire in 1997-1998 as a result of escaped fires during the El Niño drought was about 9.7 million hectares, 6.5 million hectares in Kalimantan, Indonesia, alone. After the end of the drought in 1998 the situation stabilized. Average to above-average long-term rainfall was recorded in the critical areas of the Indonesian archipelago, particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and increased public awareness and law enforcement somewhat reduced the large-scale use of fire in forest conversion. Consequently, there were fewer wildfires during 1999-2000. Still, nearly 23 000 fire events were detected through the use of satellite remote sensing. Most of them were small land use fires except for a 14 000 ha fire in the coastal wetlands to the east of Palembang, South Sumatra, which lasted for over three months.


Fire is the most important natural threat to forests and wooded areas of the Mediterranean basin. It destroys many more trees than all other natural calamities: parasite attacks, insects, extreme wind events, frost, etc. Mediterranean countries have a relatively long dry season, lasting between one and three months on the French and Italian coasts in the north of the Mediterranean, and more than seven months on the Libyan and Egyptian coasts in the south.

Today, the average annual number of forest fires throughout the Mediterranean basin is close to 50 000, i.e. twice as many as during the 1970s. It is not easy to form an accurate picture of the overall increase, however, owing to the varying databases. In the countries where data have been available since the 1950s, a large increase in the number of forest fires can be observed from the beginning of the 1970s: Spain (from 1 900 to 8 000), Italy (from 3 000 to 10 500), Greece (from 700 to 1 100) and Turkey (from 600 to 1 400). Only former Yugoslavia deviates from the general trend (from 900 to 800).

The average annual accumulated area burned by wildfires in the Mediterranean countries is approximately 600 000 ha, almost twice the annual average during the 1970s. The trend observed is, however, much less uniform than for fire numbers. A worsening situation is clearly observed in Greece (from 12 000 to 39 000 ha), Italy (from 43 000 to 118 000 ha), Spain (from 50 000 to 208 000 ha) and former Yugoslavia (from 5 000 to 13 000 ha). The situation in Portugal has also worsened, although its statistical series starts later. In Cyprus, no apparent trend emerges from the statistics, but some years present a very high maximum (e.g. 1974). Finally, the total burnt area has remained relatively stable in Croatia, France, Israel and Turkey.

Unlike other parts of the world, where a large percentage of fires are of natural origin (lightning), the Mediterranean basin is marked by a prevalence of human-caused fires. Natural causes represent only a small percentage of all fires (from 1 to 5 percent, depending on the country), probably because of the absence of climatic phenomena such as dry storms.

The 1999 and 2000 fire seasons in the Russian Federation were less critical than in 1998, when 4.27 million hectares of forest and other land under fire protection were affected by fire. In 1999, the area burned was 752 000 ha and 1.14 million hectares were burned up to September 2000. The future of fire management in the Russian Federation depends on final institutional arrangements at the federal and regional levels. The European Union is sponsoring a technical cooperation project to improve fire information and response and an exchange of fire management specialists is continuing with the United States.

In September 1996 the FAO/UNECE/ILO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire called for a regional Baltic action plan concerning collaboration in forest fire protection and proposed a first regional conference. This proposal was submitted to the government of Poland. The government responded positively and hosted the First Baltic Conference on Forest Fires in Radom-Katowice in May 1998. The meeting was attended by scientists, managers and representatives from administrations of the host country (Poland), the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden), Germany and the Russian Federation.

At the conference the establishment of pan-Baltic programmes and exchange mechanisms encompassing fire research, fire management training, the use of prescribed fire (in forestry, nature conservation and landscape management) and mutual fire emergency assistance were proposed. The conference participants agreed to develop a concerted regional Baltic Forest Fire Action Plan within the framework of the Baltic 21 Action Programme.

The fire problem zones in the countries bordering the southern Baltic Sea (Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland) and Belarus are dominated by pine forests which are favoured by the continental climate.

The western European countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel and the North Sea have fewer wildfire problems than the central-eastern countries of Europe. They only occasionally experience large wildfires. For example, statistical data for the United Kingdom show an average annual area burned of 428 ha between 1980 and 1996. Wildfire risk in the region of the Alps and southeastern Europe (non-Mediterranean) is determined by the characteristics of either mountain mixed deciduous-conifer forest or lowland broad-leaved forest. Both in Austria (average area burned annually between 1980 and 1996: 105 ha) and in Switzerland (average area burned annually in the same period: 407 ha) a high proportion of forest fires is caused by lightning, mainly at higher elevations. In 1994 in Austria and Switzerland 27 and 33 percent, respectively, of all fire starts were caused by lightning.


The Oceania region is dominated by Australia, a fire-prone continent with a large variety of vegetation types and fire regimes. Fire plays a major role in the ecology of most vegetation types, and humans have had to both live with and learn to manage fire. Most of Australia's vegetation formations are fire-adapted and many are fire-dependent for regeneration. The majority of Australian wildfires are ignited accidentally or purposely by humans, although lightning is important, especially in remote areas. About 115 000 and 230 000 fires per year were depicted by satellite remote sensing during the fire seasons 1998-1999 and 1999-2000. After the end of the 1997-1998 El Niño drought, fire activity in Australia and New Zealand returned to normal. Fire statistics from New Zealand show that between 1989 and 1999 an average of 6 322 ha of forests burned annually.

North and Central America and the Caribbean

Together, Canada and the United States cover nearly 18.8 million square kilometers, about 14 percent of the world's land area. The two countries share one of the longest common borders in the world, creating numerous opportunities for transboundary cooperation in fire management. Mexico has a forested area of 141.7 million hectares (according to the national definition of forest), of which 56.8 million hectares are temperate and tropical forests and 58.4 million hectares are zones with arid and semi-arid vegetation. The common border between Mexico and the United States is also long, about 3 200 km, providing many opportunities for international cooperation during fire emergencies.

International and regional cooperation in fire management increased significantly during the past decade. Under the North American Forestry Commission, a Fire Management Working Group brings together specialists from Canada, the United States and Mexico to work on common problems. The Northeast Fire Compact between Canada and the northeastern United States has been in place for many years; and a Northwest Compact is a recent development sharing firefighting resources both ways across the border between Canada and the United States. There is also a Great Lakes Compact which specifies fire management cooperation along the central portion of the international border.

Agreements for sharing resources also exist along the border between Mexico and the United States. Central America has been especially proactive in developing cooperative efforts among all countries in this area. Central American countries meet periodically to establish common fire management policies and strategies to help each other.

Large-scale fires throughout North America, Central America and the Caribbean in 1998-2000 clearly indicated that public policies and practices, as well as prolonged drought, contributed to the severity of fire impacts. In the United States, for example, a policy emphasis on fire exclusion over many decades has led to the build-up of unnatural accumulations of fuels within fire-dependent ecosystems. Fires that now occur burn at much higher intensity and are more difficult to control. In Central American pine forests, fire is part of the silvicultural practice.

Intense drought conditions in the western United States in 2000 contributed to wildfires that burned about 2.5 million hectares of forests and grasslands. Montana, Idaho and Oregon were declared national disaster areas and the National Guard, Army, and Marines were called into action. In an unprecedented move, firefighting personnel were requested from Canada and Mexico and from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The firefighting effort cost the United States about US$1 billion, but it was really the onset of fall rains that quelled the fires.

Mexico experienced seven consecutive years of drought from 1994 to 2000. In 1998, El Niño conditions created the most difficult wildfire season in Mexico's history. Mexico had 14 445 wildfires affecting 849 632 ha, the largest area ever burned in a single season. Seventy-two people died in fire control activities which involved the military, state governments, many federal agencies and volunteers. Mexico received support from the United States Government in the form of equipment, technical support and financial resources.

A review of fire conditions in Mexico and Central America indicates that the number of fires is often related to traditional burning for land clearing and agriculture. Firefighters are overwhelmed by the number of fires during the dry season.

South America

Fire as a land use tool is deeply rooted in the culture, society and traditions of most countries in the region. Fire has been used to prepare agricultural lands for crops or grazing, to open impenetrable lands to new agricultural uses, to facilitate hunting or to maintain an open landscape.

Without exception, country fire officials throughout the Southern Hemisphere believe that uncontrolled wildfire is fast emerging as a major concern. This was a recurring theme in the presentations at the first South American Seminar on Control of Forest Fires, held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1998. The continuing use of fire in land use practices, population pressures and a decrease in the economic stature of many of the people in the region are primary causes for the increase in wildfire problems.

The exact scope of the problem is difficult to determine. Fire statistics in many cases are non-existent, significantly incomplete or misleading. There is not a common understanding or definition of what constitutes a wildland fire. A review of available statistics suggests that 50 to 95 percent of wildfire starts in the region are the result of agricultural burns or land-clearing burns escaping control. Agricultural burning has been occurring for so many centuries that vast quantities of smoke or many hectares on fire evoke little concern. Satellite imagery cannot differentiate the unmanaged and uncontrolled wildfires from controlled burns. During the early months of 1998, satellite imagery heightened government and international awareness regarding the vast number of "hot spots" in the region.

The province of La Pampa in central Argentina, experienced an unusual fire season in 1993. Fires burned 1 227 440 ha of grassland and shrublands, with great economic loss. This was four times the annual average. In 1994, 25 firefighters died in a rangeland fire in the coastal area of northeastern Patagonia. During the 1995-1996 season, large wildfires affected the Patagonian/Andean region in general and, in particular, the oldest National Park in the country. In response to public concern, the Federal Government established a National Fire Management Plan. In 1999, large fires affected the central and southern areas of the country. One of the oldest pine plantations in Patagonia was lost, causing a great impact on the community. Two fatalities occurred in two different fires. The Mesopotamic region had an unusually critical fire situation in 2000. The fires affected large areas of pastureland and eucalyptus and pine plantations.

Serious wildfires occurred in Brazil during the 1990s. For example, in 1998 almost 20 percent of the State of Roraima burned. Economic losses due to yearly fires in Amazonia are high and smoke contributes to serious respiratory health problems. Fires have also led to interruptions in the electrical energy supply and the closure of airports as well as contributing to the loss of biological diversity.

In Chile, in comparison to the 1980s, fires increased by 13 percent in the 1990s, from an average of 4 800 to 5 530 per year. Nevertheless, the average fire size dropped from 11.3 to 9.1 ha as a result of improved strategies, organizational methods and cooperation among firefighting partners.

Droughts in 1992, 1993, 1997 and 1998 in Chile caused enormous damage to the environment and losses of facilities and miscellaneous structures. During the 1997-1998 fire season, fire behaviour was extreme in the deep south, and in 1998-1999 the central part of the country was affected. The latter was the most difficult fire season in Chile's history, with 6 830 fires and 101 691 ha burned. The "La Rufina" fire alone burned 25 400 ha, 14 houses, cattle and power lines among other losses.


Policy-makers are beginning to realize that continued emphasis only on emergency response will not prevent large and damaging fires in the future. Emergency preparedness and response programmes must be coupled with better land use policies and practices. Actively working towards sustainable forestry practices with community involvement is an important strategy for better conservation of natural resources and reduced impacts of wildfires.

Between 1998 and 2000, several international initiatives related to sustainable development and wildland fire prevention, preparedness, management and response were started or continued. Many countries are starting to develop policies and practices to improve their institutional capacity to prevent, prepare for and combat forest fires. At the same time, it should be remembered that fire is one of the natural forces that has influenced plant communities over time and as a natural process it serves an important function in maintaining the health of certain ecosystems. Consequently, the traditional view of fire as a destructive agent requiring immediate suppression has given way to the view that fire can and should be used to meet land management goals under specific ecological conditions.

Reviewing the global fire situation in the 1990s, it is possible to conclude as follows.

Many countries are now starting to develop policies and practices to improve their institutional capacity to prevent, prepare for, and combat forest fires. The Ministries of Environment and Agriculture in Mexico, for example, have collaborated since the disastrous 1998 fire season to reduce the threat of agricultural burning to forests.

In Brazil, measures have been taken to stress fire prevention programmes and to train farmers in burning practices that will better control fires used in agriculture.

Strategies are being developed in the United States to determine the extent to which tree thinning, timber harvest and prescribed burning could restore forest health and reduce fire hazards.

Wildfires during drought years continue to cause serious impacts to natural resources, public health, transportation, navigation and air quality over large areas. Tropical rain forests and cloud forests which typically do not burn on a large scale were devastated by wildfires during the 1990s.

Many countries and regions have well-developed systems for documenting, reporting and evaluating wildfire statistics. However, many fire statistics do not provide sufficient information on the damaging and beneficial effects of wildland fires.

Satellite systems have been used effectively to map active fires and burned areas, especially in remote areas where other damage assessment capabilities are not available.

Some countries still do not have a system in place to report annually number of fires and area burned in a well-maintained database, often because other issues such as food security and poverty are more pressing.

Even those countries supporting highly financed fire management organizations are not exempt from the ravages of wildfires in drought years. When wildland fuels have accumulated to high levels, no amount of firefighting resources can make a notable difference until the weather becomes more moderate (as observed in the United States in the 2000 and 2001 fire season).

Uncontrolled use of fire for forest conversion, agriculture and pastoral purposes continues to cause a serious loss of forest resources, especially in tropical areas.

Some countries are beginning to realize that intersectoral coordination of land use policies and practices is an essential element in reducing wildfire losses. In some cases, sustainable land use practices and the participation of local communities in integrated forest fire management systems are being employed to reduce resource losses from wildfires.

In some countries, volunteer rural fire brigades are successful in responding quickly and efficiently to wildfires within their home range, and residents are taking more responsibility to ensure that homes will survive wildfires.

Although prescribed burning is used in many countries to reduce wildfire hazards and achieve resource benefits, other countries have prohibitions against the use of prescribed fire.

Fire ecology principles and fire regime classification systems are being used effectively as an integral part of resource management and fire management planning.

Fire research scientists have been conducting cooperative research projects on a global scale to improve understanding of fire behaviour, fire effects, fire emissions, climate change and public health.

In numerous cases, intersectoral and international cooperation in helping to lessen the impact of wildfires on people, property and natural resources reached unprecedented levels in the 1990s.

Institutions like the Global Fire Monitoring Center have been instrumental in bringing the world's fire situation to the attention of a global audience via the Internet.

In addition to statistics on forest management indicators, qualitative information on status and trends in silviculture and forest management has been collected through a literature review and is presented in Forestry country profiles on the FAO Web page ( index.jsp). Profiles currently exist for 20 countries in Asia and are under preparation for 25 countries and territories in the Caribbean; 13 countries in Central and South America; 10 countries in Central Africa and 22 countries and territories in Oceania.


FAO. 2001. Global forest fire assessment 1990-2000. FRA Working Paper No. 55.

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