9 September 2003, Rome -- Fires are increasingly damaging the world's forests, destroying millions of hectares of valuable timber and other forest products every year, FAO warned today.

The uncontrolled expansion of agricultural activities and tourism, as well as the increased use of forests for recreational purposes, poses a serious risk to peoples' lives and to natural resources.

The destruction of forests and infrastructure and the costs of fire-fighting are estimated at several billion dollars every year, FAO said.

FAO urged countries to involve local communities in the management and protection of their forests.

"Where people have an interest in protecting their forest resources, forest fires started by people will more or less disappear," said Mike Jurvelius, FAO Forest Fire Officer.

"Many forest ecosystems are adapted to fires, they need some fires to regenerate the natural forest," Jurvelius added. "But unfortunately, most fires are damaging, where they burn out of control."

Forest fires are one of the issues to be discussed at the XII World Forestry Congress which will gather in Quebec City, Canada, from 21 to 28 September 2003, more than 3 000 foresters from over 120 countries.

A burning issue

"This year's fire season has been one of the worst in recent history, in terms of loss of human life and damage to forests and infrastructure, which includes housing, roads, bridges and telecommunication," Jurvelius said.

To date, Portugal has lost about 417 000 hectares (ha), which is a more than 300 percent increase over the average losses during the last two decades.

In France, fires have destroyed around 45 000 ha of forests so far this year, which equals a 30 percent increase compared to the 1980-2000 average.

In the Russian Federation, 23.7 million ha of forests were lost in 2003, an area almost the size of the United Kingdom. In 2002, the Federation lost 11.7 million ha.

In the United States, around 2.8 million ha of forests were destroyed by forest fires, compared to around 1.7 million ha in 2002.

However, in Canada, the losses decreased from 2.6 million ha in 2002 to around 1.5 million ha this year despite the severity of forest fires in Western Canada.

Australia has lost more than 60 million ha in this fire season, half of it started by humans. However, some 'useful' fires are necessary to manage the ecosystem in Northern Australia and have been practised for thousands of years.

The worst fire hazard area in the world is in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 170 million ha are burning annually. Around ten percent of these fires are necessary for the ecosystem.

Globally, according to the latest data available, more than 350 million ha of forests were burned in 2000. This area equals the size of India.

It sometimes takes only a cigarette

"The extremely hot summer in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia has definitely contributed to the intensity and severity of fires," Jurvelius said. "The hotter it is, the higher the danger of fires. This not only damages forests, but also burns and destroys the topsoil and increases the risk for soil erosion and landslides."

But it is not mainly nature that causes these fires, it is people. Globally, 95 percent of all fires are caused by various human activities. It sometimes only takes a match or a cigarette to burn down a forest, FAO said.

The main causes of fire outbreaks in rural areas are: land clearing by farmers in developed and developing countries, including shifting cultivation; the burning of residues and waste; and using fires for hunting and in honey collection to chase out the bees from the nest.

Most fires are out of control because farmers lack the skills on how to contain them, FAO said.

Using forests for recreation also increases the risk of wildfires in many countries. The number of tourists camping,hiking and cooking in forests is increasing worldwide, and many are ignorant about using fire properly.

In Europe and northern Africa, migration from rural areas also contributes to forest fires. Younger people move to cities, thus the tending of forests, grazing and the collection of fuelwood often stops. Dead trees and bushes accumulate on the ground and increase the risk of fire.

In addition, many fires are caused by road construction, including the heating up of asphalt and the clearing of roadsides.

Arson, military activities and private disputes over land tenure also lead to forest fire outbreaks, FAO said.

Educating people

"Countries such Austria, Germany and Switzerland have successfully contained forest fires," Jurvelius said. "For centuries, they have run awareness campaigns educating people about the functions and values of their forests. In addition, local communities and private forest owners, care about their forests because their livelihoods depend on the forest resources."

Namibia and Mozambique, for example, have increased peoples' involvement in forest management. This was accompanied by public awareness campaigns. As a result, in Namibia the number of wildfires dropped significantly.

FAO called upon countries to share expensive fire-fighting equipment, such as aircraft, by signing agreements on mutual assistance in case of fire emergencies.

This year, Spanish firemen assisted their colleagues in Portugal with aircraft and personnel to fight the disastrous forest fires. At the instigation of FAO, the two countries had earlier renewed their cooperation agreements.

FAO advises countries on proactive fire management, collecting information on the causes of wildfires and designing national forest fire strategies. FAO also contributes to the Global Wildland Fire Network in nine regions.

An International Wildland Fire Conference, co-organized by FAO, will be held in Sydney/Australia, 4-8 October 2003, to address present fire problems and outline protection strategies.

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
[email protected]
(+39) 06 570 53105