Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Mediterranean forest fires: A regional perspective

R. Vélez

Ricardo Vélez is chief of the forest fire service of the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Madrid.

An overview of the causes, impact and control of forest fires in the Mediterranean region, with particular reference to preventive and control measures developed in Spain.

Fire is the main cause of forest destruction in the countries of the Mediterranean basin. About 50000 fires sweep through 700000 1000000 hectares of Mediterranean forest each year, causing enormous economic and ecological damage as well as loss of human life. The data given in Tables 1, 2, 3 and 4 are incomplete and not easily comparable, since the systems used to evaluate the damage are not homogeneous.

However, the tables do express the magnitude of the problem.

In comparison with previous decades, the 1970s and particularly the 1980s have shown a worsening of the problem, in terms of both numbers of fires and area burnt. To what can we attribute this increase?

Climatic factors

The forest fire situation in the Mediterranean basin is significantly conditioned by predominating climatic conditions. Prolonged summers (extending from June to October and sometimes even longer), with virtually no rain and average daytime temperatures well in excess of 30°C, reduce the moisture content of forest litter to below 5 percent. Under these conditions even a small addition of heat (lightning, a spark, a match, a cigarette butt) can be enough to start a violent conflagration.

Together with heat and lack of moisture, wind is another influential climatic factor. The inland summer winds characterized by high speeds and strong desiccating power - for example, the tramontana of Catalonia and Italy, the mistral that blows through the Rhône Valley, the khamsin in Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic, the sharav in Israel, and the sirocco in the Maghreb, as well as the poniente in Valencia and the levanter in the Straits of Gibraltar-cause atmospheric humidity to fall below 30 percent and contribute to the spread of fires by carrying sparks over great distances.

The dry and cold winds of Mediterranean winters can also augment the danger of fire. For example, the foehn that blows southwards over the northern Italian Alps, and the southerly wind that blows across the north of Spain from the Central Meseta, often fan small, deliberately set fires out of control.

IN THE MEDITERRANEAN BASIN fires cause enormous ecological and economic damage

Compounding their historic impact, climatic conditions have been particularly severe over the past two decades. In comparison with the 1960s, when the Mediterranean climate grew milder and rainfall was relatively regular, the 1980s were characterized by exceptionally severe droughts. In particular, 1989 was one of the driest years of the century throughout the western Mediterranean.

Forest vegetation as fuel

As a reflection of the prevailing climate with its long summer droughts, Mediterranean forests are frequently characterized by fire climax species, i.e. those that depend on the presence of fire in the reproductive cycle. Pines form the largest tree stands on both the northern and the southern shores of the Mediterranean. The Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) is the most widespread on the coasts of Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The stone pine (P. pinea), the maritime pine (P. pinaster) and the Corsican pine (P. nigra) on the western side of the basin and P. brutia on the eastern side are the other main species. These species are characterized by physiological mechanisms that link natural seeding with fire, e.g. the opening of pine cones exposed to intense heat. These species also tend to have a particularly high content of resin or essential oils, making them extremely inflammable.

Other species, particularly the evergreen sclerophyll oaks, holm oak (Quercus ilex), cork oak (Q. suber), Q. coccifera, etc., have developed a morphological resistance to fire. For example, Q. suber has developed a characteristically thick bark that isolates the cambium, enabling it to resist sporadic fires. Likewise, the presence of a large number of dormant buds in oaks ensures the production of shoots and sprouts if the aerial part of the plant is reduced by fire.

However, these adaptive reactions do not provide permanent protection. After repeated fires, the trees are replaced by a woody shrub cover that is not merely resistant to fire but typically pyrophytic, as with the dehiscence of rockroses (Cistus), or other species that produce seeds with a thick isolating tegument or rhizomes or running roots.

To this natural evolution of flora must be added human-induced changes caused by attempts to restore the tree cover in areas where excessive fire or other uses such as overgrazing and fuelwood extraction have caused a high level of degradation. Reforestation is usually carried out using pioneer species, predominantly pines established in monospecies stands. This in itself increases the risk of fire due to the continuity of fuels in closely spaced plantations as well as the concentration of fine, highly inflammable fuels.

There is still another important factor that increases the danger of fires. Socio-economic development in the region has led to a generalized decrease in grazing and in the collection of wood and forest scrub for fuelwood and fodder. As a consequence there has been a build-up of highly inflammable forest litter. This is a particularly serious problem in privately owned forests which, because of the low returns on labour, tend to be abandoned until they have reached harvestable dimensions. This problem is much more serious on the northern than on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, where the rural population still manages large numbers of ruminants and gathers great quantities of fuelwood and other products from the forests for domestic use.

ALEPPO PINE (Pinus halepensis) in Tunisia

Another cause of increases in forest fuels, especially on the European side of the Mediterranean, has been the shift of population from the rural areas to the cities. As a result, large stretches of marginal farmland, especially in mountain areas, have been left uncultivated and have been colonized by bush and even natural pine groves.

The population drift does not imply the total elimination of activities in the forest area. The remaining, often elderly pastoral population continues to use fire to eliminate stubble and renew pastures. However, the large accumulation of fuels often allows fires set for agricultural purposes to spread out of control. Furthermore, the scarcity of forest dwellers makes fire suppression more difficult.

Causes of fire

Statistics on the causes of forest fire in the Mediterranean region are far from complete, but it is evident that the majority of fires are set by people. Natural agents such as lightning do indeed cause forest fires, and when they occur in isolated areas the extent of the damage can be enormous. For example, lightning was the cause of a fire that burnt more than 30000 ha in Ayora-Enguera, Spain, in 1979. In aggregate, however, the number of naturally occurring fires is small in comparison with those caused by humans.

An important source of fires is shepherds who ignite forest and grassland to promote new flushes of growth for grazing animals. When this is done without the necessary precautions and coincides with high climatic risks, forest fires are practically inevitable. Although in the past there has been a tendency to blame pastoralists for nearly all Mediterranean forest fires, this appears to be an exaggeration.

Farmers also use fire to eliminate crop stubble, and to push back the forest to make room for agricultural expansion. In spite of the obvious risks, farmers can often be observed setting fire to agricultural residues even when large out-of-control fires are burning in the same area.

Urban populations in the Mediterranean region show a particularly poor understanding of the danger of fires and of their potentially negative consequences. Despite continuous preventive propaganda campaigns, many city dwellers do not consider a forest fire to be a threat even in the middle of summer. The carelessness of smokers and of excursionists who light cooking fires is the source of about one-third of the fires.

TABLE 1. Number of forest fires




















6 443

4 880

7 224

12 837

7 713


5 308

4 659

5 672

6 249

5 000


1 045


1 284

1 442

1 210


1 117

1 233





9 557

7 956

8 482

18 664

9 387













(185 fires/year average, 1982-85)


3 567

4 503

6 377

7 218

4 437










1 433

1 793

1 528


1 063

1 080


1 514

1 108

Sources: ECE/FAO Agriculture and Timber Division. 1988. Forest fires statistics 1983-1986. New York. United Nations

Note: Figures for Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic not available

* Country estimates

TABLE 2. Total area burnt








9 381

221 367

4 731

4 668



7 512

3 718

3 771

4 965

1 650


151 644

117 599

164 546

486 328

28 450


55 145

53 729

27 202

57 368

50 000


27 372

19 613

33 655

105 450

23 286


3 441

4 788

1 740

1 476



130 239

223 728

78 326

189 898

86 407








(1 200 ha/an year average, 1982-85)








1 818

17 730

1 423

1 888


39 557

47 812

52 713

145 255

108 500


(1 500 ha/an year average, 1982-85)


1 613

4 139

1 287




4 018

3 556

7 358

26 007

11 296


19 358

20 585

10 314

42 791

24 563

Sources: ECE/FAO Agriculture and Timber Division. 1986. Forest fires statistics (third ed.). New York, United Nations

* Country estimates

An increasingly important cause is the burning large quantities of solid waste left by tourists and other recreational users of forest areas. The disposal of garbage, usually by burning, is often carried out in conditions of high fire risk without taking the necessary precautions. The tourist areas along the European coasts of the Mediterranean are the scene of frequent fires due to garbage burning.

Finally, there are a growing number of fires ignited not for utilitarian purposes but with destruction as their sole aim, especially in the western Mediterranean. These fires may be lit for a variety of reasons, including private vengeance and conflicts related to ownership, hunting rights, and even government forest policies, for example when reforestation is carried out at the expense of traditional extensive grazing lands or when areas which were formerly open to common use are declared protected zones or national parks. Another important motivation for destructive fires, particularly in the European Mediterranean, is an attempt to change land-use classification. For example, in parts of Italy and Greece, large areas of forest cover have been destroyed by unscrupulous housing developers.

Ironically, there also seem to be a growing number of fires set by the auxiliary workers who are retained by national forest fire services during the critical summer months. These workers are paid a much higher salary when actually fighting fires than when on standby, and there are confirmed cases of deliberate fires to incur the higher pay rate.

Forest fire control and prospects for improvement

Forest fires are clearly a permanent, serious problem across the whole of the Mediterranean region. The following is a brief outline of current fire management efforts, indicating areas of action for improvement.


Prevention activities can be divided into two broad areas: those directed at the primary cause of fire, i.e. people, and those aimed at mitigating the inflammability of forest resources.

Public information campaigns are carried out in most Mediterranean countries, with the intensive use of mass communications media, mainly television, radio and the press. In most cases these campaigns are aimed almost exclusively at urban dwellers during the summer and stress the risk of fire caused by negligence, and its potential consequences. Although an appraisal of results is difficult, it appears that the incidence of fire caused by tourist carelessness is being positively affected.

Tourist movement during the summer produces an international public for these campaigns. Therefore it could be of value to use unified symbols or phrases throughout the Mediterranean, and to stress the regional nature of the danger.

The situation regarding the rural population, however, requires a different approach. In fact, campaigns developed for urban populations may even be counterproductive with a rural public. Generally, rural dwellers have a good basic knowledge of the positive influence forests have on the microclimate and of their effect in reducing erosion, and of the potentially negative effects of fire. The rural population needs to be involved in forest economics. People need to be clearly informed about the damage wildfire causes to the long-term potential of their farming and livestock operations. It is also necessary to give precise information on who is, in fact, affected by fires, with a concentration on the effect on both public and private lands.

Sociological studies to determine the behaviour and knowledge of rural people are one key to developing effective information campaigns aimed at the rural population. In Spain, for example, studies carried out in 1987 deduced that "word of mouth" campaigns as opposed to those in the mass media could be effective tools. In 1988 and 1989 pilot efforts were implemented based on this concept, supported by special audiovisual material on forest fire and its effect on agricultural and grazing land.

Preventive efforts must be supported by legislation clearly establishing the setting of incendiary fire as a crime and penalizing offenders in proportion to the damage caused. However, this component should never be the main element of prevention efforts.

Information campaigns must be complemented by preventive silviculture, i.e. forest management techniques designed to minimize the risk of and damage resulting from fire. Fuel management involves such highly diverse techniques as grubbing and pruning, tree thinning, brushwood crushing, prescribed burning, controlled grazing and species selection.

Protective techniques need to be integrated into overall silvicultural practices, which have generally concentrated on regeneration and production (see separate article by Vélez). Selection of specific techniques must be determined by the prevailing physical, economic and social conditions. For example, in areas where there are forest-grazing conflicts, controlled grazing should be encouraged rather than prohibited. If properly timed and controlled, grazing enables fine fuel accumulation to be reduced and involves pastoralists in forest management.

The major problems in applying efficient preventive silviculture are the extent of the area to be treated and the cost of the labour required. Broad-based policies encouraging reforestation operations and care of existing stands are necessary. These policies may need to be supported by credits and other incentives, especially in the case of privately held forest areas. In Spain in 1988 the Government approved a preventive silviculture programme which provides for subsidies of up to 85 percent of the cost of the work on private forests, when applied to whole stands.

Monitoring and detection

National detection and monitoring networks based on fixed and mobile stations have been established in all of the Mediterranean countries. In several countries, these operations are being automated with the use of infra-red sensors and remote television monitors, in some cases powered by photovoltaic cells. Aerial monitoring has also been experimented with, primarily in Spain and Italy, but the high cost of this type of operation places serious constraints on its wider use in the region. In any case, hi-tech systems cannot replace ground-level technicians with a good working knowledge of the terrain. The experienced person is still and will continue to be a basic cog in the detection wheel.

TABLE 3. Annual risk of forest fire, percentage of area burnt, and average area burnt per fire in selected countries


Annual risk (fires per 10000 ha of forest)

% area burnt (area burnt/forest area x 100)

Average area burnt per fire (ha) (forest area no. of fires)





































Source: Elaborated by author using data from ECE/FAO Timber and Agriculture Division. 1988. Forest fires statistics 1983-1986. New York, United Nations

TABLE 4. Economic losses due to forest fires (in thousands of US dollars)












44 338

29 262

36 060

110 280


96 603










24 838

41 260

9 087

27 442


9 752

8 567

5 629

16 885



1 836




13 264

2 506

7 080

19 928





4 956

Source: Country estimates

Note: Figures for Algeria, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Morocco and the Syrian Arab Republic not available

*Estimate provided in local currency only

Danger-rating systems are another essential element of fire control. This requires close cooperation with the national meteorological services, and the development of fire behaviour models and indices. Throughout the Mediterranean daily danger indices based on local weather forecasts have been systematically calculated for many years. However, in many cases these ratings are inadequately supported by meteorological data.

In France and Spain, researchers are developing models that predict the moisture content of the main woody forest species at different times of the year and under different atmospheric conditions. Experiments are also being carried out in remote-sensing evaluation of moisture levels.


Approximately 30000 workers are mobilized for fire-fighting activities each summer in the Mediterranean region; in particularly serious seasons, the number may swell to 50000 with the participation of members of the armed forces.

Having trained personnel available in sufficient numbers is a basic condition for successful suppression work. The organizational scheme providing the best level of protection is one consisting of a general, permanent fire service which is reinforced with additional resources and personnel during critical periods. The dimensions of the basic service will be determined by the overall risk of fire. As a guide, however, at least one fire brigade (of seven to ten workers) will be required for every 10000 ha of moderate risk area; for high risk areas, a brigade must be deployed for every 5000 ha. The correct functioning of such a system requires a suitable legal framework in which jurisdictions and responsibilities - who has the authority to mobilize forces, for example are clearly delimited.

The efforts of land-based suppression forces are reinforced in many Mediterranean countries by fleets of aircraft (mostly amphibious) and helicopters. Approximately 300 aircraft are used each summer for fire-fighting operations in the Mediterranean basin. The use of helicopters is assuming increasing importance, particularly in the transport of fire crews to difficult locations.

However, airborne suppression activities must not be viewed as a substitute for land-based efforts, particularly in view of the high costs involved. If land-based forces are not sufficient, the introduction of additional airborne forces will not improve overall efficiency, and may even retard future development as resources which could have been better invested in the formation of land-based brigades are diverted. Apart from their direct costs, airborne forces require an additional infrastructure of personnel and facilities.

FIRE SUPPRESSION trained personnel is essential

International cooperation in Mediterranean forest fire control

International cooperation is already contributing to a better understanding of the forest fire situation in the Mediterranean In September 1987 an international seminar on methods and equipment for the prevention of forest fires was held in Valencia, Spain, at the invitation of the Spanish Government. Organized under the auspices of the FAO/ECE/ILO Committee on Forest Working Techniques and Training of Forest Workers, the seminar and integrated study tour was attended by 120 participants from 22 countries.

In April 1987, the Greek National Commission for Unesco sponsored an international symposium for the formulation of an effective common strategy in the Mediterranean region. Fire prevention and control are a regular agenda item in the meetings of the AFC/EFC/NEFC Committee on Mediterranean Forestry Questions, "Silva Mediterranea", held every two years.

Further improvements in international cooperation could make a decisive contribution to forest fire control efforts in the Mediterranean region. For example, mutual suppression aid agreements, already in place between a number of countries in the European Economic Community, could be established on a wider basis. Standardization of technology and reporting would be a key element in this process.

There is also a dire need for more frequent exchanges of statistics. The FAO/ECE Agriculture and Timber Division produces a compendium of forest fire statistics every two years, but these need to be bolstered by the institutionalization of regular exchanges between national experts.

Finally, international collaboration in training holds great promise. Important progress is being made in this area with the organization of regular courses on forest fire management, sponsored by FAO and ICONA at the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies in Zaragoza, Spain. Two courses were held in 1989, one in English and French for forest engineers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia; and a second in Spanish for professionals from Latin America. In 1990, the programme will continue with training on fire behaviour, prevention, detection and suppression, prescribed burning, communications, and use and maintenance of equipment.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page