Table of Contents Next Page

Editorial: Fire!

Most anthropologists estimate that humans have been able to produce fire for some 20000 years, and have "kept" and controlled naturally occurring fire for more than 500000 years. Initially used for warmth, cooking and stimulating the growth of various forest products for food, fire soon became an indispensable adjunct to the clearing of forest land for agriculture and animal husbandry. As such, throughout history, in nearly every culture worldwide, fire has been used as a management tool. For example, during Carthaginian domination of the Mediterranean in the sixth century B.C., the plants and trees in Sardinia, Italy, were burnt to facilitate agricultural production.

With the use of fire as a tool in the preparation of land for agricultural use came the realization that if fire spread out of control, the negative secondary effects often far outweighed the anticipated benefits. Moreover, with increasing population pressure on a limited albeit renewable resource, and the advent of multiple-use and multiple-value concepts, it became essential not only to employ fire, but to do so in a controlled fashion over a predetermined area. When the Romans followed the Carthaginians in controlling the Mediterranean basin, they continued to use fire in the preparation of agricultural land, but they also protected the woodlands and prescribed severe penalties for those who set unauthorized fires. The Romans were justified in their concern, for the climatic and vegetative characteristics of the region combine to produce a particularly high potential for destructive wildfire. In this issue, two articles by R. Vélez examine the forest fire situation in the Mediterranean and the potential for protective silviculture.

Fire damage is by no means confined to southern Europe. Wildfires burn uncounted millions of hectares of African savannah each year. In Asia, a single fire in Kalimantan, Indonesia, damaged more than 3.6 million ha in 1982. In North America, notwithstanding extensive, highly sophisticated prevention and control efforts, more than 2.3 million ha of forest land still bum each year. In the portions of Latin America with extended dry seasons, much of the existing forest vegetation manifests adaptability to fire. An interview with M. Salazar, head of forest protection for the Honduran forest development corporation, offers insights into control of forest fire in the Central American context.

Increasing concern with conservation and wise use of forest resources has been paralleled by the development of organized efforts to mitigate the effect of uncontrolled fires. Virtually all countries now have national forest fire services and programmes. Although on a per hectare basis the cost of forest fire control is relatively low, the extent of the area to be covered results in significant total expense. Throughout the world, and especially in the developing countries, this mandates the efficient use of scarce resources. For more than 20 years, FAO has provided technical assistance in forest fire control to developing countries, as is evidenced by an overview article by the former FAO Senior Plantations and Protection Officer J. Troensegaard. The article by R. Saigal examines an FAO-assisted pilot project in India to develop and test socio-economically appropriate, modem forest fire control methods. In both articles, the importance of the participation of local people in the control of fire emerges clearly.

Campaigns designed to sensitize local people to the potentially harmful effects of uncontrolled fire have unfortunately often had a backlash effect whereby fire has been characterized exclusively as an insidious enemy to be completely eliminated. More recently, however, there has been a growing realization that this extreme approach is both unwarranted and unrealistic. If utilized under controlled conditions for appropriate purposes, fire is a valuable tool for forest management as well as for the preparation of land for agriculture or pasture. Moreover, for local people in many, perhaps most regions of the world, fire is still the most efficient, affordable management tool available. The modification of ecosystems with heavy machinery, herbicides and other high energy-consuming techniques is frequently prohibited by social and economic realities. The article by D. Wade and J. Lundsford details the use of prescribed fire in the southeastern United States as an example of the benefits of controlled use of fire in forest management.

Depending on land management objectives, plus a host of environmental variables, fire will sometimes be an enemy, at other times a friend; in nearly all cases, however, it will continue to exert a powerful influence on natural resource ecosystems. This being so, consideration of the potential impact (both positive and negative) of fire is essential in all land-use plans and programmes for forestry development. Additional aspects of this complex subject will be covered in future issues of Unasylva.

Top of Page Next Page