Forest and other vegetation fires
The global estimate of land area affected by fire in 2000 was 350 million hectares, much of which was forest and woodland. Most of the area burned was in sub-Saharan Africa, followed at some distance by Australia (Fire management global assessment 2006).
The role of fire in the world’s vegetation is mixed. In some ecosystems natural fires are essential to maintain ecosystem dynamics, biodiversity and productivity. Fire is also an important and widely used tool to meet land management goals. However, every year, wildfires destroy millions of hectares of forest woodlands and other vegetation, causing the loss of many human and animal lives and an immense economic damage, both in terms of resources destroyed and the costs of suppression. There are also impacts on society and the environment – for example, damage to human health from smoke, loss of biological diversity, release of greenhouse gases, damage to recreational values and infrastructure.
Most fires are caused by people. The list of human-induced causes include land clearing and other agricultural activities, maintenance of grasslands for livestock management, extraction of non-wood forest products, industrial development, resettlement, hunting, negligence and arson. Only in very remote areas of Canada and Russian Federation lightning is a major cause of fires.
There is evidence from some regions that the trend is towards more fires affecting a larger area and burning with greater severity, while the risk of fire may be increasing under climate change in association with land-use changes and institutional constrains on sustainable forest and fire management.
Better landscape management needed to prevent wildfires
From an assessment of megafires it was concluded that the main contributing elements of these wildfires are drought, fire meteorology, accumulation of fuel and homogenous or fire prone landscapes, which are often caused by lack of appropriate land management.
Preventive landscape management is there for needed and should include policy, cultural, technical, social, financial, organizational, and economical and market aspects.
For instance, large homogeneous forests and housing areas shouldn’t be established in regions with fire-prone vegetation, but different land uses should be combined to maintain mosaic features in the landscape with natural firebreaks.
Special attention should be paid to timing of certain agricultural activities e.g agricultural burnings should take place before the dry season and before the surrounding landscapes turn fire-prone. Burnings should also be avoided during the high winds and hottest time of the day. At the same time alternatives for agriculture fires might be developed.
Local populations should be involved through participatory and/or community based approaches because they are often main actors in landscape management activities, they suffer directly from the fires which threaten their livelihoods and might also be involved in some of the fire causes.
Integrated fire management
FAO has coordinated the development of the Fire Management Voluntary Guidelines aimed at helping countries develop an integrated approach to fire management, from prevention and preparedness to suppression and restoration.
The FAO Guidelines advise authorities and other stakeholder groups that fire-fighting should be an integral part of a coherent and balanced policy applied not only to forests but also across other land-uses on the landscape.
More attention should also be given to monitoring wildfire GHG emissions as a potential contributor to climate change.
Dr Peter F Moore