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4.2 Mediterranean Sub-Region


An analysis of trends in forest fire occurrences in the Mediterranean, including comments on underlying policy-related causes of forest fires, has been prepared for the "FAO Meeting on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires", Rome, Italy, 28 - 30 October 1998 (Alexandrian and Esnault 1999) and published in an additional short version in UNASYLVA (Alexandrian et al. 2000). It analyses the situation in the 23 Mediterranean countries: Albania, Algeria, Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Libyan Arab Jamahariya, Malta, Morocco, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Turkey and former Yugoslavia. The following Mediterranean section of the Europe report is an edited and updated version of the UNASYLVA publication. Country reports for Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain and Turkey have been added separately.


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. All countries analysed for this report have a more or less long dry season. The dry season lasts 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 (UNEP 1988).

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), Morocco (from 150 to 200) 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 for the Mediterranean countries is approximately 600 000 ha. This number is also almost twice as much as during the 1970s. The trend observed is, however, much less uniform than for fire numbers. A worsening situation is clearly observed in Greece (from12 000 to 39 000 ha), Italy (from 43 000 to 118 000 ha), Morocco (from 2 000 to 3 100 ha), Spain(from 50 000 to 208 000 ha) and former Yugoslavia (from 5 000 to 13 000 ha). In Portugal, the situation has also worsened, although its statistical series starts later. In Algeria and Cyprus, no apparent trend emerges from the statistics, but some years present a very high maximum (e.g. 1957, 1958 and 1983 in Algeria; 1974 in Cyprus). Finally, the total burnt area has remained relatively stable in Croatia, France, Israel and Turkey. It is significant to note that no country shows an improved situation, despite all the measures taken (Le Houérou 1987).

Causes of fire

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 one to five percent, depending on the country), probably because of the absence of climatic phenomena such as dry storms.

Another characteristic common to the entire Mediterranean basin is the high number of fires for which the cause is unknown. This group accounts for the majority of forest fires in most countries: 56 percent on average in the five countries of southern Europe and between 50 and 77 percent in most of the others (Cyprus, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey). A point to note, however, is that some countries are characterised by a relatively low proportion of fires resulting from unknown causes, between 25 and 47 percent in Croatia (Alexandrian 1998), Greece (Anonymous 1995) and Portugal (Delattre 1993).

Among the known causes, those that are involuntary (negligence or accidents) are the most frequent in all countries, except in Turkey where voluntary fires seem to be in the majority (Canakcioglu 1986).

The accidental causes vary among countries. Some are associated with fixed installations (power lines, rubbish dumps) and some are directly related to human activity (badly controlled charcoal kilns, uncontrolled burning, smokers, campfires, fires set by shepherds). The list is very long and any synthesis is impossible. It seems, however, that these involuntary fires are directly related to agricultural and forestry activities. The parties at fault in the case of forest fires are mainly permanent inhabitants (and seldom passing tourists).

Paradoxically, the fundamental cause of forest fires is linked to increased standards of living among the local populations. Far-reaching social and economic changes in Western Europe have led to a transfer of population from the countryside to the cities, a considerable deceleration of the demographic growth, an abandonment of arable lands and a disinterest in the forest resource as a source of energy. This has resulted in the expansion of wooded areas, erosion of the financial value of the wooded lands, a loss of inhabitants with a sense of responsibility for the forest and, what is important, an increase in the amount of fuel (Le Houérou 1987).

In contrast, in the Maghreb countries the involvement of local populations was maintained, especially in forest villages. The demand for food and energy (fuelwood) has increased to the point of seriously reducing the forest area and the inhabitants view forest fires as a direct threat to their living conditions. In these countries, the numbers of forest fires has remained at a relatively constant level.

Control policies and programmes

For the purpose of discussion, policies related to forest fire have been grouped into four traditional categories: prevention, including all measures intended to prevent the occurrence of forest fires; pre-suppression, covering all provisions intended to improve interventions and safety in the event of fire; suppression, including all means of intervention; and rehabilitation, i.e. the measures taken after a fire to limit its negative consequences.


Knowledge of the causes of forest fire is a precondition for the implementation of suitable solutions. An original technique for establishing the cause of fire has been developed in Portugal. Responding to an increase in the incidence of forest fires at the end of the 1980s, the Portuguese authorities set up fire research brigades made up of forestry guards to investigate the cause of each fire that occurred. Scientific methods of investigation were progressively developed and, within a few years, the country passed from 80 percent of fires being attributed to unknown causes to less than 20 percent. This experiment, moreover, made it possible to show that the great majority of fires were due to negligence (43 percent), followed by arson (34 percent) (Delattre 1993).

Almost all Mediterranean countries have adopted measures to increase public awareness of forest fires, and the focus is nearly always on accidentally caused fires. The target is the adult public - residents or tourists - located in areas of risk. School children are also the target of specific programmes (Calabri 1986).

All the current mass communication channels are used to reach the public, including television campaigns, posters and radio advertisements. In Spain, stage performances focusing on the consequences of forest fires are also used in rural zones. The messages have evolved over time: in the beginning posters tended to invoke fear but, later, the emphasis was on ecological risks. Current messages are rather utilitarian (e.g. what to do in the event of fire).

Provisions for the prevention of accidental fires associated with installations (railways, rubbish dumps, power lines, etc.) exist in almost all countries in the Mediterranean. Identifying the causes of accidental fires in these situations is generally easy. The mechanisms of ignition are referred to as technical measures, yet their prevention is generally poorly considered in the list of available policy and administrative measures.

Most of the countries concerned have differing and often more severe penalties associated with deliberately set fires. In a number of cases - e.g., Portugal and Israel (Rosenberg 1986) - the punishments were made more severe after the countries experienced waves of arson. It has been observed, nevertheless, that the heavier the punishments provided by the law, the more difficult it is to prove arson and the more the courts hesitate to condemn arsonists (Goldammer 1986).

Among the legal provisions that are implemented, two merit special consideration:

1. Punishment for the parties at fault in the case of fire. The majority of Mediterranean countries have a variety of legal instruments to punish the guilty parties in the case of a forest fire. The punishments for deliberately set fires are always much more severe than those for involuntary fire. They range from forced work - e.g., in Morocco (Zitan 1986), Algeria (Grim 1989) and Tunisia (Chandoul 1986) - or jail sentences of only a few months (e.g. in Cyprus) to life imprisonment (e.g. in France).

2. Regulations restricting the right to light fires. Many countries prohibit the use of fire (including smoking) in forests and near their boundaries during the period regarded as high risk, including on privately owned land. Infraction of these regulations is generally punished by way of a fine, which is sometimes very costly. Other countries (Spain, Italy, France, Cyprus) prohibit access to forests both with the aim of prevention and to promote civil safety (to prevent people from being caught in fires) (Goldammer 1986).


The weather forecast is used to mobilise means of suppression in advance. From this point of view, the American fire behaviour model is often used, for example in Israel (Woodcock 1994) and Spain (Commission on Agriculture and Fisheries 1993). The countries also make a considerable effort to establish weather stations that record temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction.

Monitoring from lookout towers is a very widespread technique. For example, it is used in the Syrian Arab Republic (Abou Samrah 1995), Israel (Rosenberg 1986), Jordan (Government of Jordan 1986), Turkey (Serez 1995), former Yugoslavia (Government of Yugoslavia, SFR, 1986) and Morocco (Zitan 1986). This activity is usually supplemented by ground patrols made up of foresters with a good knowledge of the area, for example in Tunisia (Chandoul 1986), Morocco (Zitan 1986) and Algeria (Grim 1989). In many countries (Algeria, Croatia, France, Spain), private planes are used to monitor forest areas on days of highest risk (Government of Portugal 1998). In some cases, visual assessment is complemented by automated infrared systems (Government of Spain 1992). Interestingly, statistics reveal that, in spite of sophisticated monitoring systems, fires are often first reported by local inhabitants.

The management of forests for the prevention of fires is carried out in a very similar way throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is based on the creation of tracks, firebreaks and water reserves. This work is often designed within the framework of traditional management projects (e.g. in Algeria and Tunisia). Maintenance of these networks is an important issue, especially as the authorities responsible for creating the systems are often not the same as those who are responsible for maintaining them).

These infrastructures, which may date back several years, often do not take into account recent technical developments such as the advent of large water carriers or air-tanker helicopters.

Several countries (France, Israel, Italy, Spain and Turkey) have adopted provisions in their forestry laws aimed at obligating forest owners to clear the undergrowth along roads and/or railways (Goldammer 1986). Undergrowth clearance can be interpreted as much as a measure of prevention (aimed at preventing ignition) as a measure of pre-suppression (aimed at making roads safe). In France, the law requires owners to clear the undergrowth within a perimeter of 50 m around their house (self-protection). In reality, this provision is rarely applied because of the expense of such an operation and the opportunity cost of this form of land use.

Prescribed burning in France and in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean

Prescribed burning is a land management technique that uses fire in a planned and supervised way over a predefined zone, without endangering adjacent areas. This ancient practice, often employed to clear land for agricultural and pastoral use, has become a modern tool for wildfire prevention by controlling the level of combustible materials on the ground. As prescribed burning has developed, further benefits have emerged. Prescribed burning is also used to maintain landscapes and open environments, to improve the habitat of fauna (particularly hunted species), to regenerate land in the aftermath of farming and to carry out thinning operations. In addition, the firefighters who perform the prescribed burns benefit from the excellent fire control training opportunity it affords.

National and international research programmes are currently studying the effects of prescribed burning on the different components of the Mediterranean and mountain ecosystems (the different strata of plant communities, the surface layers of the soil, the fauna and biodiversity). A recent study “Prescribed burning as a tool for the Mediterranean region: a management approach” was prepared by the EU-funded project Fire Torch, which brought together research teams from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Greece.


Recent data on this subject are very difficult to obtain in terms of human, physical and financial resources. For the air tankers (planes or helicopters), which are fewer and thus easier to record than vehicles, a range from 1 to 4 in absolute value can be seen between two neighbouring countries: a little more than 30 units in Portugal against 140 in Spain. In terms of relative value, on the other hand, the five countries of southern Europe all have approximately one airborne unit per100 000 ha of Mediterranean forest. International cooperation in this area is therefore a high-priority issue and a concern of the European Union (EU) (Goldammer 1994, Delattre 1993).

Regarding suppression strategy, information is even more difficult to obtain. In France, the objective is an initial attack in less than ten minutes. This strategy is based on anticipation: according to the risk level, vehicles are placed close to forested areas so air tankers are already airborne when a fire is reported. Under particularly unfavourable conditions, it has been shown that initial attack needs to be carried out even more quickly in order to be effective.

A good knowledge of the area is necessary to optimise fire fighting. In countries with a high density of inhabitants close to the forest, mapping does not appear to be necessary (e.g. in North Africa). In European countries that have undergone a strong rural depopulation, it is an absolute necessity and is subsidised by the EU (European Parliament 1994). Sometimes the military authority is the owner and exclusive user of the maps, so it is difficult for the forest services to access the data.


With an average of 50 000 fires and 600 000 ha burned, the Mediterranean basin represents a significant wildland fire region in the world. Several estimates indicate that the total annual cost of wildland fire prevention and suppression in the region is more than US$1 billion (LeHouérou 1987).

Despite the efforts made, particularly in the countries of southern Europe, fire threats are far from stabilising and even appear to be increasing significantly in most of the 23 countries studied.

Nowadays, forest statistics are better than 20 years ago. Some of the fire increases observed might in fact be due only to an improvement in the reliability of the data.

The growth in the area of forest, particularly of unmanaged forest in most of the countries to the north of the Mediterranean, increases the likelihood of larger fires now than in the past. This is the case for some recent fires in Spain.

The policies adopted until recently have given priority to firefighting (and the preparations for related activities, i.e. pre-suppression) to the detriment of efforts aimed at prevention or control. Paradoxically, in some areas, successful prevention efforts have resulted in an increase of fuel loads and therefore an increase of the risk of more severe wildfires that will be difficult to control.

Policies affecting wildland fires are numerous and many of them are beyond the direct control of the forest sector. National and international politics that influence political changes and create tensions, unrest, and war, and policies that determine rights of ownership and use of land, employment, urbanisation and agricultural subsidies all have an impact on wildland fires. It is in these areas that a "solution" to the forest fire problem may be found.


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The section "Prescribed burning in France and in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean" was authored by Eric Rigolot (France)

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