Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


2. Cross-sectoral issues

In this section, cross-sectoral issues fundamental to fire management are introduced. The discussion of these issues provides an overview of the impact of fire on other sectors, as well as the impact of those sectors on the prevention, suppression and use of fire. The dilemma faced by many is that fire can be a destructive force and, conversely, be a natural and vital component in the ecology of the area – and be both at the same time.

2.1 Livelihoods and poverty

Within the natural environment, fire can be a normal part of the cycle of ecosystems and can ensure a healthy, sustainable source of food and resources. It is a tool and a beneficial force in improving people’s lives. Fire is a key component in the agricultural practices of people in many different ecosystems. In some areas, it is managed by traditional rural communities to maintain healthy forests, ranges and grasslands that provide habitats for hunting and for the gathering of fruits, nuts, grains and other food sources. Fire may be the most economical method for improving forage for domestic and wild animals and increasing livestock production. On the other hand, it can also damage or destroy homes, food and natural resources and pollute the air. At times, the use of fire to prepare fields, reduce pests and diseases and improve forage results in disaster when these fires escape.

Clean, safe water is often a scarce natural resource. Water quality and quantity may be affected by vegetation fires in catchments. However, planned fires reduce excessive amounts of vegetation. The right level of vegetation cover, may help ensure adequate flows of quality water. In addition, the lower fuel load will reduce the risk of severe fires burning all of the vegetation and damaging soils, resulting in major water-quality degradation.

A comprehensive fire management programme can contribute positively to achieving specific features of human rights and livelihoods: poverty alleviation, food security, clean water, good health, education and participation in the economic life of the country. Protection from unwanted, damaging fires and the management of fire to benefit society can contribute to achieving these goals.

2.2 Fire as a tool in sustainable land use and resource management

The concept that there is ‘good fire’ should be supported and advocated. Fire can be good for habitats, for resources, for reducing threats and for maintaining cultural values. Some sectors that use fire as a tool to enhance output and facilitate land use are agriculture, forest resources management and pastoral and wildlife management. Fire has been part of the agricultural and forest practices used by societies for millennia and in many areas is still so used today. From a fire management standpoint, there is generally no difference in the use of fire for planted crops or for promoting the growth of naturally occurring sources of food for consumption by both people and livestock. The same is true of the use of fire to maintain traditional or cultural landscapes or vegetation patterns.

Fire can also be the tool of choice for land clearing and conversion. In many ecosystems, it is relatively easy to slash live vegetation and allow it to dry to the point that it will carry fire. It can then be burned, and if the purpose of the conversion is agriculture, there is an added benefit, because the fire releases stored nutrients into the soil to promote the growth and vigour of crops.

2.3 Impacts on human health and security

Smoke pollution due to land-use fires and wildfires is an important public health issue and involves major risks for human and environmental health. Smoke pollution generated by vegetation fires is a recurring phenomenon. It may lead to increased mortality and hospital admissions due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The smoke and haze from planned or unplanned fires can also adversely impact aviation, shipping and vehicular traffic, resulting in risks to safety as well as economic losses.

Elements of vegetation cover with an environmental ‘protective function’ include above- and below-ground parts of plants, i.e. roots, the humus and grass layers, and the stems and leaves of brush and trees. Sites affected by uncharacteristic, high-severity or excessively frequent fires are subjected to excessive water runoff and erosion – processes that result in mud-, land- and rockslides, flash floods and flooding at the landscape level – as well as to wind erosion.

Improvements in human security can be based on a concept of ‘fire-adapted’ communities. The term is well established in describing communities of flora and fauna. It can also be applied to human communities, and may prove to be very useful in describing an ideal set of conditions under which people live in harmony with the normal occurrence of fires and their impacts. However, in many parts of the world, people living in communities with high incidence of fires often have insufficient institutions and infrastructure to provide appropriate fire protection.

2.4 Safety considerations for firefighters and civilians

For firefighters and fire managers, safety is a core value and cannot be compromised. It is a critical part of all activities, from planning through restoration. In fact, one of the most common reasons for establishing a fire management organization is to protect firefighters and communities from unwanted fires. Even countries with well established and highly financed fire management organizations can and do experience the devastating effects of massive fires.

Public safety is closely tied to issues of security. Uncontrolled, devastating wildfires destroy homes, businesses, schools and other types of structures throughout the world. Protecting communities and saving lives starts with community education and preparation. Perhaps the best way to save lives is to have a fire-adapted community, one in which infrastructure and buildings are constructed so as to facilitate subsequent protective actions and in which civilians are able to assist in their own protection and safety. Appropriately designed and constructed buildings offer protection to people during fires, reducing the likelihood of fire-related injuries and fatalities.

Public safety is very important, but the safety of the firefighter must be given the highest priority in the policies, procedures, plans and management philosophy of any agency or organization. Firefighter safety begins with the provision of the proper safety equipment and training to each individual in fire suppression and prescribed burning operations.

Safety training includes education in the local weather and terrain, as well as in the flammability of fuels. Firefighters must also be trained to recognize the characteristics of fire behaviour, such as intensities, spread rates and when a smouldering fire can re-ignite and begin to spread. Crews need to understand how to monitor fires and to estimate potential changes in order to avoid becoming trapped by an unanticipated change in spread or intensity.

2.5 Sustainable ecosystems and environmental impacts

Maintaining sustainable, properly functioning ecosystems should be a goal for all fire management programmes. In many instances, attention is paid to the damage and destruction of fires and not to the underlying ecological or social causes. Ecosystems have evolved over time with different fire regimes. Some fire-dependent, healthy, sustainable ecosystems experience fast-moving, high-intensity fires that can nonetheless cause substantial damage to structures and resources. The same types of fires may occur in fire-sensitive ecosystems and cause damage to ecosystem health, and it is important to understand the difference and to focus restoration activities on achieving a healthy balance between ecosystem health and public safety.

This type of ecosystem management requires a landscape-scale approach to planning, managing and restoring ecosystems, and not simply a focus on small-scale site impacts. A broad view balances impacts and losses, both economic and non-economic. Such losses may be difficult to quantify, but they should be recognized and considered at an appropriate scale.

No single type or frequency of fire is right for all ecosystems or landscapes. A fire-sensitive or fire-intolerant area may need complete protection from human-caused fires. Fire-dependent ecosystems, on the other hand, need some type and frequency of fire – achieved either through the natural fire cycle or the use of planned fires. In some areas, a variety of fire occurrences, intensities and extent will be needed in order to promote biodiversity and a range of habitats. Invasive and/or alien plants can complicate the management and use of fire. The effects of an otherwise appropriate fire regime need to be considered carefully in the management of ecosystems invaded by unwanted, invasive plants in order to avoid negative impacts.

The inappropriate use of fire at the wrong frequency or intensity will lead to a loss of plant species, a change or reduction in vegetation structure and, in some cases, a corresponding loss of animal species. With human demographic changes and population migrations, the most effective and safest type of fire may be planned fire managed for a specific, desired result. However, if the natural occurrence of fire can be used safely, this may be the most economical approach.

2.6 Carbon and climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – has recently concluded that "the global average surface temperature has increased over the 20th Century by 0.6C, lower atmosphere temperatures are rising, snow cover and sea ice extent have decreased, sea levels are rising, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase due to human activities, and global temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise under all modelling scenarios” (IPCC, 2001). Numerous general circulation models project a global mean temperature increase of from 1.6 to 5.4C by 2100 – a change much more rapid than any experienced in the past 10000 years. The frequency and severity of extreme weather and climate events are also projected to increase and will lead to an alteration of fire regimes. Most importantly, more frequent droughts may result in increasing occurrences of high-severity wildfires, with consequences for vegetation cover loss, desertification and reduced terrestrial carbon sequestration.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for the "protection and enhancement of sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases", and requires all countries to monitor and understand the major factors influencing the exchange of carbon between the biosphere and the atmosphere. Both land-use fires and wildfires in all ecosystems are affecting carbon pools and global carbon cycling. At the same time, climate change affects the duration and severity of dry seasons, thus having an impact on the incidence and severity of fires. The principles and strategic actions support national and international capacity for appropriate, proactive fire management responses as they relate to mitigating the effects of climate change on fire regimes and carbon pools and vice versa.

2.7 Knowledge management

Knowledge management is an important but often neglected part of fire management. Most organizations have a system for storing information or historical documents, but few have a comprehensive programme for knowledge management. A comprehensive information- and data-collection system goes beyond the minimum requirements for maintaining legal and financial information to gathering, understanding and using aboriginal, traditional and local knowledge in conjunction with scientific and research results. Such a system is capable of guiding the appropriate use of the latest technological methods.

In fire-dependent or adapted ecosystems, traditional knowledge may provide a wealth of information that cannot be discovered by the current generation of fire practitioners over the course of one career or lifetime. Traditional lore and knowledge are passed down through many generations and may reflect a cycle of environmental conditions that occurs over hundreds of years.

Knowledge management also refers to the collection and use of statistics, reports, reviews, evaluations and other types of management systems common within business, government and other organizations in modern society. With the introduction of computing and communications systems, the exchange of information and knowledge is becoming easier and more effective. The challenge for the modern manager is to effectively use these new systems to strengthen the organization, improve safety conditions and blend new knowledge and scientific discoveries with traditional lore and knowledge. When that is done well, both the ecological and the social systems benefit.

2.8 Science and technology

Fundamental fire science is of a multidisciplinary nature and includes a number of classical disciplines ranging from social sciences to ecology, physics and chemistry. Cultural and anthropological fire history and geography, humanities, arts and social and economic sciences are addressing the human role in shaping the global environment by fire. Interdisciplinary research aims to better understand complex processes such as fire/atmosphere/climate interactions. Support for continuing research and integration across these fields is critical if the fire community is to advance with new knowledge, tools and technologies.

Much research has been done over the years, and the transfer of scientific knowledge through vocational education is vital to understanding and practising advanced fire management. Public education is essential, in particular in wildfire prevention and ecologically sound and safe burning techniques.

The transfer of knowledge from the research community to private citizens can be accomplished through public awareness programmes. Such a transfer should teach the ecological or environmental effects of fire, how to design fire-adapted communities and how to respond during emergencies. If the transfer is to be successful, information has to be available in a language generally understood in the community. Much of the literature will need to be translated into local languages and adapted to the local social, economic and ecological situation.

2.9 Education, training and public awareness

Education and training form a bridge between research or technical knowledge and the effective application of policy and procedures. They are needed within organizations and for external partners and members of the community. An effective programme of community engagement in fire management and safety can help prevent unwanted fires, build the trust of the community in the fire management programme and inform citizens of their responsibilities in using fire wisely and carefully.

Education is often regarded as being related to formal university studies, but it should also include community-based education. A community-based programme will inform citizens on the technology of fire management, but can also gain by learning from the traditional knowledge of the community. This two-way flow of traditions and knowledge will be beneficial to all.

The training and qualification components of fire management provide the information and knowledge necessary to implement a safe and effective programme. The training developed should consider environmental conditions and the local fire regime, and should be available to all members of the fire management organization. The training programme for volunteers and members of the community – who are not full-time employees or only respond to an occasional incident – needs to be of the same quality and to emphasize clearly the need for safety and caution in the face of an uncommon event.

The public will be more aware of the fire situation if they are part of the total programme. A public that is knowledgeable about the role and uses of fire and the need for the community to participate in the protection of life, property and resources will be an effective partner in the total fire management programme. Public awareness has to be followed by public involvement in implementing fire management programmes.

2.10 Legal, policy, institutional and financial frameworks

Government actions are based on policies, laws and jurisdictional authority. This is also true for fire management programmes. The actions of the agency’s or landowner’s officials – who suppress fires, conduct fuel treatment activities or prevent civilians from engaging in dangerous or risky actions – will not be effective if they are not following a clear legal, institutional and policy framework.

The legal framework is the underlying basis of a fire management programme. In general, the directive that establishes a purpose or objective for an area, such as forestry, cultural landscape preservation or development, will be the primary one, with fire management directives secondary to the primary objective. The agency or landowner responsible for carrying out the primary objective should develop and implement a fire management programme that takes into account the role of fire, the need for protection and the impact of fire on adjacent areas, communities and civilians.

Policies are needed to explain how laws will be interpreted, and to what degree. By clearly stating and implementing the policy, the agency or landowner will be better positioned to explain the need for planned fire and to maintain the support of the community. If the policy is not clear, it will be difficult to implement and maintain a programme.

In forest and rural areas where the use of fire is an important tool for land and resource management, or where fire is a critical feature in fire-dependent ecosystems, a legislative mandate is needed so that fire use can continue. This legal framework provides accountability for fire management and guarantees that managers use fire responsibly. Land managers, landowners and fire suppression agencies need to work cooperatively to ensure that protection and use are properly balanced.

The institutional framework can be defined as all the processes and procedures an agency or landowner has developed and implemented to carry out the programme. An effective and efficient programme can be said to be ‘institutionalized’ when the framework is so ingrained into the thoughts, actions and goals of the members of the organization that it is accepted and promoted at all levels.

An adequate and continuing source of funding is needed. Much of the work of fire management takes place before a fire starts. Relying on emergency funding during fire crises will not develop the properly trained and equipped organization needed to safely and effectively respond. Financial support is determined by the fire regime, the amount of fire and the economic values at risk from fires, all considered within the context of the resources available locally. In almost all situations, funding an effective fire management programme will be less expensive than the cost of reacting to emergencies and suffering the economic losses of homes, structures, resources and livelihoods.

2.11 Cooperation and partnerships

Proposals for rules, procedures and standards for international cooperation in fire management are being developed by a range of interested partners. These include the United Nations and other international organizations, government agencies, academia and representatives and organizations of civil society, e.g. non-governmental organizations and the private sector. These constitute first steps towards the establishment of internationally negotiated and agreed standards.

Two recent efforts among many others are worth noting. The expansion of the regional wildland fire networks – supported and sponsored by the Global Wildland Fire Network of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction – aims to facilitate dialogue and cooperation among countries. The guiding principles developed for fire management, international agreements, community-based fire management – and the international recognition of the Incident Command System (ICS – see Annex 2) – during the International Wildland Fire Summit in Sydney in 2003 are the foundation for many of the present principles and strategic actions.

Cooperation, at all levels, is used by all types of agencies and organizations to address fire management workload cost-effectively. While not universally true, it is certainly common that the responsibility for fire management is shared by agencies or organizations within a community, state/province or country boundary. In some systems, one agency/organization will have responsibility for all types of ownerships and lands, and the need for cooperation and coordination will occur at the boundary. This may be countrywide, and the boundary for cooperation will be an international boundary. Or jurisdictions may be by city, county, parish, district or other designation, and there will be a need for interagency coordination at jurisdictional boundaries within the country.

Another example is a comprehensive, pre-fire-season cooperative agreement that provides for a full range of cooperative activities. Agencies, within or across country boundaries, will agree on when, where and to what extent resources will be exchanged or sent in assistance. These agreements usually have provisions for reimbursement and may even have provisions under which personnel from an assisting agency detect, attack and suppress a fire without any resources from the home jurisdiction being involved at any point during the operation. An agreement such as this can only be effective if all parties agree on the qualifications of the personnel and the methods of operation, for example the use of a common operating system such as ICS.

Perhaps the most critical factor is that the agency administrators have confidence in the ability of all partner agencies to follow procedures, conduct operations and adequately monitor, evaluate and comply with all aspects of the agreement. If those conditions can be met, this type of agreement will prove, over time, to be an effective, cost-efficient and productive operational agreement. Leaders entering into any type of agreement should consider forming a council, oversight committee or other formalized group to oversee the various aspects of the agreement and meet regularly to review performance, suggest and implement improvements, and ensure compliance with all performance requirements.

Cooperation and partnerships are important in all aspects of fire, not just in suppression. Mutual assistance agreements are the most common in local and international use, but many comprehensive arrangements provide for all types of fire management exchanges and cooperation, including joint planning and implementation of projects, training, technology exchange and research.


Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page