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1 Introduction

The mission of FAO's global forest resources assessment programme (FRA 2000) is to provide the world community reliable information to describe and understand the situation of the world's forests and related resources and how they change over time. The assessments are carried out jointly by FAO, Rome, and UN-ECE/FAO, Geneva, in cooperation with member countries and partners. FAO is directly responsible for information for developing countries, as well as a global synthesis, and UN-ECE/FAO, Geneva, is responsible for the industrialized countries.

The Expert Consultation on Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000 held in Kotka, Finland, during June of 1996 recommended that FAO should provide annual statistics/estimates for the FRA 2000 for each country on the number of forest fires and the area burned over the period 1990-2000.

Just after the Kotka meeting emphasized the importance of accounting for the annual occurrence of forest fires within countries, the El Niņo drought conditions of 1997-1998 garnered public, media, and political attention to the world-wide outbreak of fires that were devastating forests. The size and damage being caused by these fires was so enormous that the Christian Science Monitor called 1998 "the year the earth caught fire." At times the earth did seem to be on fire 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 19982. 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 global fire problems witnessed in 1997-1998 served as a catalyst for FAO to sponsor a meeting of "Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires" in Rome in October 1998 to review policies affecting fires, collect information about global fires, and produce recommendations to better protect the world's forests.3

Seventy-one participants from 33 countries and 13 international organizations concluded, among other things, that "there is a need for reliable and up-to-date systems for national, regional, and global fire reporting, analysis, and storage of data. Such data, and information on fire causes and socio-economic and environmental effects, are required as a sound basis for policy making." International organizations also were urged "to support the design and implementation of a global fire inventory or reporting system, in close collaboration with the fire science community and end users."

FRA 2000 provided an opportunity for FAO to begin 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 in FAO's six geographical regions: Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe, North and Central America, and South America. See the Annex for a copy of the Fire Template used in soliciting information from Member countries.

2 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.

3 FAO Meeting on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires, FAO Forestry Paper 138, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 28-30 October 1998, Rome, Italy, FAO Forestry Paper 138 369 pp.

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