The Expert Consultation on Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000 held in Kotka, Finland, during June of 1996 recommended that FAO provide annual statistics/estimates for the Forest Resources Assessment 2000 for each country on the number of forest fires and the area burned over the period 1990-2000.
Soon after the Kotka meeting, the El Niņo drought conditions of 1997-1998 focused public, media and political attention on the worldwide outbreak of fires that were devastating forests. The size and damage caused by these fires was so widespread that one U.S. newspaper called 1998 "the year the earth caught fire." An "earth on fire" seemed literally true at times as huge smoke palls blanketed large regions, air and sea navigation were disrupted, many lives were lost, public health was adversely affected, homes were destroyed and natural resources were severely impacted.
Some ecosystems like the rain forests of Indonesia and Brazil and the cloud forests of Mexico, areas usually not seriously affected by forest fires, sustained considerable damage in 19981. A world audience was hungry for detailed information about the extent of these fires, but such information was not available for some regions because many countries do not have a system in place for reporting even basic forest fire statistics.
Although FAO has provided forest fire management assistance for years, including data collection and dissemination, the organization recognized that current data on fires are still incomplete. Thus, it remains difficult to assess the annual degradation of forests caused by wildfires.
The Forest Resources Assessment process 2000 provided an opportunity for FAO to define the global effects of fires on forests as a part of the forest assessment that is undertaken every ten years. This global assessment of forest fires summarizes the results of questionnaires and contacts with countries to obtain wildfire data and narrative information regarding the fire situation. The report is organized according to FAO's six geographical regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, North and Central America and South America. In-depth fire situation profiles are presented for 48 countries, with shorter reports highlighting fire conditions in several additional countries.
Through the FRA 2000 process, FAO was able to close out the 20th Century by instituting a system for collecting meaningful fire data for developing countries. Although the submission of wildfire data on fire numbers, area burned and causes fell short of expectations, the importance of regularly recording and evaluating such information has been established with Member countries.
This assessment of the global forest fire situation revealed strengths and weaknesses associated with sustaining the health and productivity of the world's forests when threatened by drought, wildfires and an increasing demand for natural resources:
• 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 that typically do not burn on a large scale were devastated by wildfires during the 1990s.
• Many countries, and regions, have a well-developed system for documenting, reporting and evaluating wildfire statistics in a systematic manner. 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 annually report number of fires and area burned in a well-maintained database, often because other issues like 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 much of a difference until the weather moderates (as observed in the United States in the 2000 fire season).
• Uncontrolled use of fire for forest conversion, agricultural and pastoral purposes continues to cause a serious loss of forest resources, especially in tropical areas.
• Some countries are beginning to realize that inter-sectoral coordination of land use policies and practices is an essential element in reducing wildfire losses.
• Examples exist where 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 being 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.
• Numerous examples were present in the 1990s of unprecedented levels of inter-sectoral and international cooperation in helping to lessen the impact of wildfires on people, property and natural resources.
• 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 reviewing the global fire situation, it is apparent that a continued emphasis on the emergency response side of the wildfire problem will only result in future large and damaging fires. The way out of the emergency response dilemma is to couple emergency preparedness and response programmes with more sustainable land use policies and practices. Only when sustainable land use practices and emergency preparedness measures complement each other do long-term natural resource benefits accrue for society.
1 Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires in the Asia-Pacific Region, James Schweithelm; and Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires in the Americas and the Caribbean, Robert W. Mutch et al; In FAO Meeting on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires, FAO Forestry Paper 138, Rome 1999.