Reducing forest fires by training local communities
New approach to forest fires suggested to Mediterranean countries
25 July 2005, Rome - Mediterranean countries could save lives and billions of euros every year if they better trained and mobilized communities in forest fire prevention and control, FAO said today.
"The northern Mediterranean countries are spending billions of euros annually on their fire fighting budgets, but only a small fraction of these resources are used for the training of rural and urban populations," said FAO forest fire expert Mike Jurvelius.
"Since people are the main cause of forest fires, prevention and control must mainly involve communities living near forests," Jurvelius added. Investing in fire education will reduce the number of fires and the cost of fire management, he added.
Forest fires destroy up to 700 000 hectares annually in the Mediterranean region, with often more than 100 000 fires in a single fire season. In some countries over 20 000 fires are recorded every year.
Why forests burn
The main causes of forest fire outbreaks in rural areas are agricultural burning and conversion of forests to croplands, the burning of residues and waste, burning forests to improve hunting, and arson.
Barbecues and fires in camping sites also cause many wildfires. The recent destructive fires in Central Spain, which killed more than ten people, were caused by the careless handling of fire during barbecues.
Since the 1980s, climate fluctuations have caused more frequent changes in wind direction and have also led to more intense winds. This has made fighting forest fires more difficult and has resulted in more severe fires and higher death tolls.
"As long as people do not understand the dangers of using fire in the open without proper protection and often under extreme weather conditions, like hot summer temperatures of sometimes over 35 degrees, the fight against forest fires will continue to rely on heavy and very costly equipment such as fire-fighting planes and will be of only limited success," Jurvelius said.
The cost of fire education campaigns is very low compared with the operating costs of a water bomber, which average 3 500 euros per flying hour; the cost of a large fire helicopter can amount to as much as 20 million euros. "For the price of one large fire helicopter ten million people could be trained in fire prevention and control," Jurvelius said.
Local forest communities need to be trained in how to remove combustible materials around their houses to protect them in case of an approaching fire. Local communities should also be involved in preparing fire breaks by removing vegetation. This can stop fires and also provide an escape route for people.
Women should be better trained in fire prevention because they play a key role in educating their children as well as in evacuating their families, Jurvelius said.
Disastrous forest fires destroyed over 100 000 ha in Greece and Bulgaria in the year 2000. Greece decided afterwards to launch a massive national fire campaign to educate its entire population in fire prevention and control. As a result of this campaign, only 10 000 ha of forests were destroyed by fires in 2004.
FAO has called upon governments to prepare voluntary guidelines for fire management and to provide financial resources for awareness campaigns. Governments should use funds from their fire suppression budgets for fire awareness activities. Early warning systems should keep the population aware of the risk of fires in critical periods, and the use of open fires should be absolutely prohibited.
In Syria and Bulgaria FAO is currently supporting the governments in developing national fire awareness campaigns. The agency is also advising Italy and Portugal on setting up similar initiatives.
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