Over the past decade, many regions of the world have experienced a growing trend of excessive fire application in the forestry/agriculture interface, land-use systems and land-use change, and an increasing occurrence of extremely severe fires.1 Some of the fire effects are transboundary, for example smoke and water pollution and their impacts on lives, human health and safety, livelihoods, material possessions, loss of biodiversity or site degradation at the landscape level, leading to desertification or flooding. The depletion of terrestrial carbon by fires burning under extreme conditions in some vegetation types, including organic terrain in peatland biomes, is one of the driving agents of disturbance of global biogeochemical cycles, notably the global carbon cycle. Observed and modelled consequences of regional climate change suggest an alteration of fire regimes, with consequences for ecosystem degradation and depletion of terrestrial carbon.
Although this trend is revealed by a wealth of scientific knowledge of the cultural, social, economic and environmental dimensions of fire in the Earth system, gaps in fire management capabilities from local to global levels are evident. The current situation and the expected trends are challenging the international community to address the problem collectively and collaboratively.
Vegetation fires have significant impacts on the global environment, economies and societies, and the role of natural and anthropogenic fire is an important factor in maintaining stability, biodiversity and the functioning of some ecosystems. In recognition of this, several international consultations in the 1990s – including the 2nd International Wildland Fire Conference in 1997 – recommended that a group and mechanisms be formally established under the auspices of the United Nations to facilitate international cooperation in addressing global fire needs.2
In 2001 a Working Group on Wildland Fire was established under the auspices of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Disaster Reduction of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN-ISDR). The working group provided an international platform and forum with the overall aim of bringing together technical members of the fire community and policy authorities at national to international levels to realize their common interests in fire management at a global scale. Among other activities, the working group initiated establishment of the UN-ISDR Global Wildland Fire Network (GWFN), under which the Regional Wildland Fire Networks would play a key role in developing international partnerships and cooperation in fire management.
FAO hosted expert consultations on forest fire policies in 1998 and on fire management, together with the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), in 2001. These consultations considered actions in international collaboration, capacity-building and human resource development; review of mechanisms in support of cooperation in forest fire management at bilateral, regional and international levels; establishment of international agreements on the sharing of resources, personnel and equipment; and examination of components of such international agreements, including overall logistical, policy and operational considerations.3
In 2003 the International Wildland Fire Summit recommended principles and procedures for international cooperation in fire management. The summit further recommended international dialogue through the Regional Wildland Fire Networks organized under GWFN and coordinated by the UN-ISDR Wildland Fire Advisory Group (WFAG).4 In May 2004, FAO, the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC), Global Observation of Forest and Land Cover Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD) and UN-ISDR drafted the Framework for the development of an international wildland fire accord.5
Regional consultations in 2004 recommended the development of informal partnerships, joint projects and formal agreements between governmental and non-governmental institutions. These were essential to enabling nations to develop sustainable fire management capabilities. In 2004 FAO and WFAG/GWFN proposed the development of an international wildland fire accord to the FAO Ministerial Meeting on Forests and the Seventeenth Session of the FAO Committee on Forestry in March 2005 (COFO 2005). Both the Ministerial Meeting and COFO 2005 called upon FAO, in collaboration with countries and other international partners, including UN-ISDR, to (i) develop a strategy to enhance international cooperation on wildland fires that would advance knowledge, increase access to information and resources and explore new approaches to cooperation at all levels; and (ii) formulate voluntary guidelines on the prevention and suppression of and recovery from forest fire.6
In response, FAO convened a technical core group of international fire specialists in March 2006 and held an international expert consultation in Madrid in May of that year to consider drafts of the strategy and voluntary guidelines. The experts agreed upon the framework outlined in Figure 1.
Components of the strategy to enhance international cooperation
in fire management
The resulting strategy was built upon those four pillars:
• principles and strategic actions, as detailed in the voluntary guidelines;
• implementation partnership (to be established in 2007);
• global assessment of fire management;
• review of international cooperation in fire management
Fire management: review of international cooperation is a preliminary survey of current international actors, roles and objectives. Moreover, it sketches the potential synergies to be found through a more coordinated approach to future international cooperation in fire management. The review outlines priority activities, methodologies, tools and standards that must be addressed in order to enhance international cooperation in fire management.
The agencies or institutions listed have previously been involved in fire projects and programmes. However, only a few priority action items included in the review have matured into concrete project proposals or actions. Follow up to this review – through international partnerships, including the WFAG, for maintaining and implementing the voluntary guidelines for fire management – will be crucial to the success of coordinated and collective international action.
1 International English terminology uses the following definitions for fires occurring in vegetation: ‘wildland fire’ – any fire occurring on wildland regardless of ignition sources, damages or benefits; ‘wildland’ – in fire management terminology, this general term includes all burnable vegetation resources; ‘wildfire’ – any unplanned and uncontrolled wildland fire that, regardless of ignition source, may require suppression response or other action according to agency policy. Due to the lack of adequate terminology in most other languages, the general term ‘fire’ is used in this report. However, names or designations of organizations, systems or publications using the term ‘wildland fire’ are respected.
3 www.fire.uni-freiburg.de/iffn/org/fao/fao_4.htm and follow-up report www.fire.uni-freiburg.de/emergency/FAO-ITTO-Follow-Up.PDF.
6 Documents of the FAO Ministerial Meeting and the 17th Session of COFO are available at
www.fao.org/forestry/site/26480/en and www.fao.org/forestry/site/2960/en/.