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Large-scale fires throughout the world in recent times have demonstrated the social, economic and ecological costs of uncontrolled fires and have received unprecedented coverage in the international media. To combat the negative impacts, national and international agencies have called for improvement in controlling forest fires.

Unfortunately, government responses to forest fires have tended to focus on suppression and costly technological solutions to fight fires. Contrary to alleviating forest fire problems, they have often increased the scale and magnitude of forest fires, and ignored the positive dimensions of fire including the social and ecological benefits of smaller, prescribed burns. These conventional measures are increasingly being questioned as the number of forest fires increases.

In addition, decreasing governmental budgets to sustain suppression management regimes have led many agencies to explore more proactive approaches in combating fires before they occur. Over the last decade, there have been calls to revisit traditional forest fire management regimes, which emphasise prescribed burning and prevention. These have been seen as more effective in tempering unwanted fires, more beneficial to local ecosystems and less costly in the long term.

In December 2000, Project FireFight South East Asia and the Regional Community Forestry Training Center (RECOFTC) organized a regional workshop on community-based fire management (CBFiM). The workshop concluded that successful CBFiM strategies and experiences should be shared with government agencies to combat the persistent paradigm that suppression and enforcement are the only effective ways to manage fires.

The Communities in flames conference was organized to serve that purpose. The objectives of conference were to:

expose forestry departments/fire control agencies to alternative approaches to forest fire management, which promote the participation of local communities in planning, and managing their own forest fires regimes (within the context of past/traditional practices and their socio-economic needs of local communities);

examine the approaches and elements for promoting these alternatives to civil society (including identifying fire research needs, forest policy amendments, legal and regulatory structures and appropriate strategies for socialising CBFiM); and

collect examples of the approaches taken by communities worldwide to manage and use their fires as a resource, and to further clarify and analyse the potential to capture the opportunities which these alternatives have to offer.

These objectives were pursued through the presentation and discussion of high-quality case studies and analytical papers from around the world. The conference was targeted to present a synthesis of lessons learned from CBFiM and its benefits in mitigating fires. Among the 120 participants were individuals and representatives of organizations that have extensive knowledge and experience of CBFiM, including a strong local non-governmental organizational presence. Representatives from forestry departments and other governmental agencies involved with land-use planning, disaster management and fire control also participated in large numbers. Academics and researchers, directly or indirectly involved in fire management-related issues such as land-use planning, shifting cultivation and air quality, were also active participants.

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