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Forest fires in the Mediterranean area

D. Alexandrian, F. Esnault and G. Calabri

Daniel Alexandrian and François Esnault are with Agence MTDA, Aix-en-Provence, Prance. Giancarlo Calabri is a former Chief of the Forest Fire Service, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Italy.

An analysis of trends in forest fire occurrences in the Mediterranean, including comments on underlying policy-related causes.

Note: This article has been adapted from a study prepared for the FAO meeting on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires, held in Rome, Italy, from 28 to 30 October 1998. It analyses the situation in the 23 Mediterranean countries: Albania, Algeria, Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Libyan Arab Jamahariya, Malta, Morocco, Portugal, Slovenia. Spain, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Turkey and former Yugoslavia. All these countries have a more or less long dry season, lasting between one and three months on the French and Italian coasts in the north of the Mediterranean and more than seven months on the Libyan and Egyptian coasts in the south (UNEP, 1988).

When silviculture is neglected, there Is a danger of highly inflammable fuels building up within the forest

Fire is the most important natural threat to forests and wooded areas of the Mediterranean basin. It destroys many more trees than all other natural calamities: parasite attacks, insects, tornadoes, frost, etc.

Today, the average annual number of forest fires throughout the Mediterranean basin is close to 50 000, i.e. twice as many as during the 1970s. It is not easy to form an accurate picture of the overall increase, however, owing to the varying collections of statistics. In the countries where data have been available since 1950s, a large increase in the number of forest fires can be observed from the beginning of the 1970s: Spain (from 1 900 to 8 000), Italy (from 3 400 to 10 500). Greece (from 700 to 1 100), Morocco (from 150 to 200), Turkey (from 600 to 1 400). Only former Yugoslavia deviates from the general trend (from 900 to 800).

The annual cumulated burnt area in the Mediterranean countries can be estimated to be approximately 600 000 ha. again almost twice as much as during the 1970s. The trend observed is, however, much less uniform than for fire incidence. A worsening situation is clear in Greece (from 12 000 to 39 000 ha), Italy (from 43 000 to 118 000 ha), Morocco (from 2 000 to 3 100 ha), Spain (from 50 000 to 208 000 ha) and former Yugoslavia (from 5 000 to 13 000 ha). In Portugal the situation has also worsened, although its statistical series starts later. In Algeria and Cyprus, no apparent trend emerges from the statistics, but some years present a very high maximum (e.g. 1957,1958 and 1983 in Algeria; 1974 in Cyprus).Finally, the total burnt area has remained relatively stable in Croatia, France, Israel and Turkey. It is significant to note that no country shows an improved situation, despite all the measures taken (Le Houérou, 1987).


Unlike other parts of the world, where a large percentage of fires are of natural origin (especially lightning), the Mediterranean basin is marked by a prevalence of human-induced fires. Natural causes represent only a small percentage of all fires (from 1 to 5 percent, depending on the country), probably because of the absence of climatic phenomena such as dry storms.

A water reservoir and automatic pump installed to wet pine crowns in the St Victoire mountain forests in France

Another characteristic common to the entire Mediterranean basin is the high number of fires of which the cause is unknown. This group accounts for the majority of forest fires in most countries: 56 percent on average in the five countries of southern Europe and between 50 and 77 percent in most of the others (Cyprus, Israel. Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey). A point to note, however, is that some countries are characterized by a relatively low proportion of fires resulting from unknown causes, between 25 and 47 percent in Croatia (Alexandrian, 1998), Greece (Anon., 1995) and Portugal (Delattre, 1993).

Among the known causes, those that are involuntary (negligence or accidents) are the most frequent in all countries, except in Turkey where voluntary fires seem to be in the majority (Canakcioglu, 1986).

The accidental causes vary between countries. Some are associated with fixed installations (power lines, rubbish dumps) and some are directly related to human activity (badly controlled charcoal kilns, uncontrolled burning, smokers, campfires, fires set by shepherds). The list is very long and any synthesis is impossible. It seems, however, that these involuntary fires are directly related to agricultural and forestry activities: the parties at fault in the case of forest fires are mainly permanent inhabitants (and seldom passing tourists).

Paradoxically, the fundamental cause of forest fires is linked to increased standards of living among the local populations. Far-reaching social and economic changes in Western Europe have led to a transfer of population from the countryside to the cities, a considerable deceleration of the demographic growth, an abandonment of arable lands and a disinterest in the forest resource as a source of energy. This has resulted in the expansion of wooded areas, erosion of the financial value of the wooded lands, a loss of inhabitants with a sense of responsibility for the forest and, what is important, an increase in the amount of fuel (Le Houérou, 1987).

On the contrary, in the Maghreb countries, the involvement of local populations was maintained, especially in forest villages. The demand for food and energy (fuelwood) has increased to the point of seriously reducing the forest area and the inhabitants view forest fires as a direct threat to their living conditions. In these countries, the incidence of forest fires has remained at a relatively constant level.


For the purpose of discussion, policies related to forest fire have been grouped into four traditional categories: prevention, including all measures intended to prevent the occurrence of forest fires; pre-suppression, covering all provisions intended to improve interventions and safety in the event of fire; suppression, including all means of intervention; and rehabilitation, i.e. the measures taken after a fire to limit its negative consequences.

An Italian fire fighting helicopter refills its water tank from a temporary reservoir without landing

A fire truck in Cyprus. Note the fire risk placard In front of the truck


Knowledge of the causes of forest fire is a precondition for the implementation of suitable solutions. An original technique for establishing the cause of fire has been developed in Portugal. Responding to an increase in the incidence of forest fires at the end of 1980s, the Portuguese authorities set up fire research brigades made up of forestry guards to investigate the cause of each fire that occurred. Scientific methods of investigation were progressively developed and, within a few years, the country passed from 80 percent of fires being attributed to unknown causes to less than 20 percent. This experiment, moreover, made it possible to show that the great majority of fires were due to negligence (43 percent), followed by arson (34 percent) (Delattre, 1993).

Almost all Mediterranean countries have adopted measures to increase public awareness of forest fires, and the focus is nearly always on accidentally caused fires. The target is the adult public - residents or tourists - located in areas of risk. School children are also the target of specific programmes (Calabri, 1986).

All the current mass communication channels are used to reach the general public, including television campaigns, posters and radio advertisements. In Spain, stage performances focusing on the consequences of forest fires are also used in rural zones. The messages have evolved over time: in the beginning, posters tended to invoke fear but, later, the emphasis was on ecological risks. Current messages are rather utilitarian (e.g. what to do in the event of fire).

Provisions for the prevention of accidental fires associated with installations (railways, rubbish dumps, power lines, etc.) exist in almost all countries in the Mediterranean. Identifying the causes of accidental fires in these situations is generally easy. The mechanisms of ignition are referred to as technical measures, yet their prevention is generally poorly considered in the list of available policy and administrative measures.

Most of the countries concerned have differing and often more severe penalties associated with deliberately set fires. In a number of cases - e.g. Portugal ( and Israel (Rosenberg, 1986) - the punishments were made more severe after the country experienced a wave of arson. It has been observed, nevertheless, that the heavier the punishments provided by the law, the more difficult it is to prove arson and the more the courts hesitate to condemn arsonists (Goldammer, 1986).

Among the legal provisions that are implemented, two merit special consideration:

· Punishments brought on the parties at fault in the case of fire. The majority of Mediterranean countries have a variety of legal instruments to punish the guilty parties in the case of a forest fire. The punishments for deliberately set fires are always much more severe than those for involuntary fire. They range from forced work - e.g. in Morocco (Zitan, 1986), Algeria (Grim, 1989) and Tunisia (Chandoul, 1986) - or jail sentences of only a few months (e.g. in Cyprus) to life imprisonment (e.g. in France).

· Regulations restricting the right to light fires. Many countries prohibit the use of fire (including smoking) in forests and near their boundaries during the period regarded as high risk, including on privately owned land. Infraction of these regulations is generally punished by way of a fine, which is sometimes very costly. Other countries (Spain, Italy, France, Cyprus) prohibit access to forests both with the aim of prevention and to promote civil safety (to prevent people from being caught in fires) (Goldammer, 1986).


The weather forecast is used to mobilize means of suppression in advance. From this point of view, the American fire behaviour model is often used, for example in Israel (Woodcock, 1994) and Spain (Commission on Agriculture and Fisheries, 1993). The countries also make a considerable effort to establish weather stations that record temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction.

Monitoring from lockout towers is a very widespread technique; for example, it is used in the Syrian Arab Republic (Abou Samrah, 1995), Israel (Rosenberg, 1986), Jordan (Government of Jordan, 1986), Turkey (Serez, M, 1995), former Yugoslavia (Government of Yugoslavia, SFR, 1986) and Morocco (Zitan, 1986). This activity is usually supplemented by ground patrols made up of foresters with a good knowledge of the area, for example in Tunisia (Chandoul, 1986), Morocco (Zitan, 1986) and Algeria (Grim, 1989). In many countries (Algeria, Croatia, France, Spain), private planes are used to monitor forest areas on days of highest risk (Government of Portugal, 1998). In some cases, visual assessment is complemented by automated infrared systems (Government of Spain, 1992). Interestingly, statistics reveal that, in spite of sophisticated monitoring systems, fires are often first reported by local inhabitants.

The management of forests for the prevention of fires is carried out in a very similar way throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is based on the creation of tracks, firebreaks and water reserves. This work is often designed within the framework of traditional management projects (e.g. in Algeria and Tunisia). Maintenance of these networks is an important issue, especially as the authorities responsible for creating the systems are often not the same as those who are responsible for maintaining them).

These infrastructures, which may date back several years, often do not take account of recent technical developments such as the advent of large water carriers or air-tanker helicopters).

Several countries (France, Israel, Italy. Spain and Turkey) have adopted provisions in their forestry laws aimed at obliging forest owners to clear the undergrowth along roads and/or railways (Goldammer, 1986). Undergrowth clearance can be interpreted as much as a measure of prevention (aimed at preventing ignition) as a measure of pre-suppression (aimed at making roads safe). In France, the law obliges owners to clear the undergrowth within a perimeter of 50 m around their house (self-protection). In reality, this provision is little applied because of the expense of such an operation and the opportunity cost of this form of land use.

Controlled burning in France and in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean

É. Rigolot

Éric Rigolot works at the National Agronomic Research Institute, Mediterranean Forestry Research Unit, Avignon, France.

Controlled burning is a land management technique that uses fire in a planned and supervised way over a predefined zone, without endangering adjacent areas. This ancient practice, often employed to clear land for agricultural and pastoral use, has become a modern tool for wildfire prevention by controlling the level of combustible materials on the ground.

Like other techniques for combustible material control, including manual or mechanical clearance, rooting out, pasturing, pastoral improvements and the use of phytocides, controlled burning has particular advantages and drawbacks. While it effectively consumes all fine and medium combustible material (mechanical crushing, for example, converts standing vegetation into a bed of crushed material but does not reduce its biomass), it is dependent on climatic conditions. Different intervention methods must therefore be combined and adapted to specific situations. In all cases, management and implementation procedures that ensure safety and favourable results must be made available to forest managers.

As controlled burning has developed, further benefits have emerged: controlled burning is also used to maintain landscapes and open environments, to improve the habitat of fauna (particularly hunted species), to regenerate land in the aftermath of farming and to carry out thinning operations. In addition, the firefighters who perform the controlled burn benefit from the excellent fire control training opportunity it affords.

In France, controlled burning has been expanding substantially for a decade or so, and now involves 6 000 to 10 000 ha -depending on weather conditions. Teams of specialists (foresters, pastoralists, firefighters), identified by the local authorities, work in a given geographical area. The cost of controlled burning varies according to the conditions under which it is carried out, but in all cases is relatively low: from FF 250 to 500/ha for treeless land in foothill areas to 1000 to 5 000/ha for clearing land with large trees before burning. Even in this last case, controlled burning nevertheless is only half as expensive as mechanical burning.

Prescribed burning near Avignon in southern France

Elsewhere in the region, controlled burning is used marginally (in Italy, Portugal and Spain), or not at all (in Greece and in the North African and Near Eastern Mediterranean countries). Where it is in use, administrative authorities have found it to be less costly than the suppression of wildfires resulting from rural populations' attempts to incinerate standing vegetation.

National and international research programmes are currently studying the effects of controlled burning on the different components of the Mediterranean and mountain ecosystems (the different strata of plant communities, the surface layers of the soil, the fauna and biodiversity). A recent study. Prescribed burning as a tool for the Mediterranean region: a management approach, was prepared by Fire-Torch, which brings together research teams from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece.


Recent data on this subject are very difficult to obtain, in terms of human and physical as well as financial resources. For the air tankers (planes or helicopters), which are fewer and thus easier to record than vehicles, a range from 1 to 4 in absolute value can be seen between two neighbouring countries: a little more than 30 units in Portugal against 140 in Spain. In terms of relative value, on the other hand, the five countries of southern Europe all have approximately one airborne unit per 100 000 ha of Mediterranean forest. International cooperation in this area is therefore a high-priority issue and a concern of the European Union (EU) (Goldammer, 1994; Delattre, 1993).

As regards strategy, information is even more difficult to obtain. In France, the objective is an initial attack in less than ten minutes. This strategy is based on anticipation: according to the risk level, vehicles are placed close to forested areas so air tankers are already airborne when a fire is reported. Under particularly unfavourable conditions, it has been shown that the initial attack would have needed to be carried out even more quickly in order to be effective.

A good knowledge of the area is necessary to optimize fire fighting. In countries with a high density of inhabitants close to the forest, mapping does not appear to be necessary (e.g. in North Africa). In European countries that have undergone a strong rural depopulation, it is an absolute necessity and is subsidized by the EU (European Parliament, 1994). Sometimes, the military authority is the owner and exclusive user of the maps, so it is difficult for the forest services to access the data.


Not all trees affected in a forest fire are totally destroyed. Some are simply licked by the flames. The first measures to be taken involve an evaluation of the survival chances of remaining trees. Many specialists recommend that trees weakened by the flames be abundantly sprinkled immediately after the fire.

Efforts to control erosion are the second priority. The Mediterranean area is characterized by steeply sloping terrain and strong autumn rains. When the forest canopy has been damaged or eliminated by fire, there is an elevated risk of erosion or mudflows. The cutting of burnt woods and their disposal along the level lines makes it possible to retain the soil and the stones on slopes. The harvesting of burnt trees, particularly in southern Europe, has been developed in recent years for the following reasons:

· even if the wood loses its value as timber, it can always be sold as fuelwood (in Portugal, there is an economy based on the cutting and the marketing of burnt woods);

· burnt trees are more easily wind-thrown and therefore represent a serious safety hazard when they are near to people;

· the cutting of the aerial part of trees that have been burnt but not killed can aid recovery;

· when a fire is located near urban areas, the aim is to eliminate the black trunks visible from the inhabited areas.

· Once urgent works are completed, there is the question of the future of damaged areas. Reforestation is employed under certain conditions:

- it is sometimes an action foreseen by law, for example the Turkish constitution mandates the reforestation of burnt areas, and similar legislation exists in Portugal and in Spain;

- it is sometimes essential for reasons of soil stability or desertification (Badreddin Mes-saudi, 1986).


With an average of 50 000 fires and 600000 ha burnt, forest fires in the Mediterranean basin represent a significant part of all fires that occur in the world. Several sources estimate the total annual cost of fire fighting and safety devices in the region to be more than US$1 billion (Le Houérou, 1987).

Despite the efforts made, particularly in the countries of southern Europe, the phenomenon is far from stabilizing and even appears to be increasing significantly in most of the 23 countries studied.

Nowadays, forest statistics are better kept than 20 years ago. Some of the increases observed might in fact be due only to an improvement in the quality of the data.

A firebreak in the Rif region of Morocco

The growth in the area of forest, particularly of unmanaged forest, in most of the countries to the north of the Mediterranean increases the likelihood of fire, particularly of fires spreading over larger areas than in the past (as in the case of some recent fires in Spain).

The policies adopted until recently have given priority to fire fighting (and the preparations for related activities, i.e. pre-suppression) to the detriment of efforts aimed at prevention or control. Paradoxically, in some areas, successful prevention efforts have resulted in an increase in the quantity of fuel and therefore an increase in the risk, making the control of future fires more and more difficult.

The policies affecting forest fires are numerous and many of them are beyond the direct control of the forest sector. Policies relating to war, political change, right of use, right of ownership, employment, urbanization and agricultural subsidies may all have an impact on forest fire, and it is in these areas that the "solution" to forest fire may be found.


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