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.
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
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."
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
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.
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,
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
In the United
around 2.8 million ha of forests were
destroyed by forest fires, compared to around 1.7 million ha in
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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,
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
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.
military activities and private disputes over land tenure also
lead to forest fire outbreaks, FAO said.
"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
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570