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, open impenetrable lands to new agricultural uses, facilitate hunting, or for maintaining an open nature to the 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 offered at the 1st South American Seminar on Control of Forest Fires, Belo Horizonte, Brazil (Ribeiro and others 1998). The continuing use of fire for 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 the wildland fire problem (Yegres 1998).
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. Reviewing 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 little concern is registered regarding vast quantities of smoke, or when many hectares are on fire. Satellite imagery cannot differentiate the unmanaged and uncontrolled wildfires from the 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.
Economic, ecological and human losses can be measured monetarily as they affect local economies or by the loss of lives or real estate. Many countries have established plantations for future wood fiber needs. These plantations are at risk. Venezuela has found that as the plantations become more widespread, the risk of loss increases (Yegres 1998). Chile (Sanhueza 1998) has been proactive in the fire management program, since the creation of their vast plantations. They have an excellent fire management programme in cooperation with private industry.
Brief fire situation profiles follow for Venezuela and Uruguay based on presentations given at FAO's "Meeting on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires" in Rome, Italy, October 1998. Longer reports prepared by correspondents will highlight fire programmes in several additional South American countries.