Record temperatures increase fire danger in the Mediterranean
Rural-urban migration can increase vulnerability to forest fires
30 July 2007, Rome - Record summer temperatures and hot dry winds have made parts of the Mediterranean a tinder box with fire-fighters working around the clock to control blazes threatening people and vegetation on thousands of hectares of southern Italy, Greece, and other parts of the Mediterranean, FAO said today.
About 50 000 fires sweep through as many as one million hectares of Mediterranean forest and other woodlands each year, according to FAO. In the Mediterranean, up to 95 percent of fires are caused by people. Arson and negligence, especially in the disposal of discarded cigarettes and the careless handling of barbecues and fires in camping sites, are the cause of many wildfires.
FAO notes that while fire is an important and widely used tool in land management and maintaining ecological processes, wildfires destroy millions of hectares of forest and vegetation with a loss of human and animal lives causing immense economic and environmental damage.
Approximately 30 000 workers are mobilized for firefighting each summer in the Mediterranean, a number that can swell to 50 000, including the participation of the armed forces, during a particularly hazardous year.
In addition to increased temperatures, socio-economic development in the Mediterranean, like abandoning the countryside as people move into the cities, has led to a general decrease in grazing and in the collection of fuelwood and fodder resulting in a buildup of highly inflammable forest litter and shrubs. This leads to more intense and severe fires which are difficult to suppress. Fewer people living in the countryside means that fires set for agricultural clearing are more likely to run out of control.
“Most countries have laws to prevent the setting of fires or to control the period during which fire may be used. Many have developed fire prevention programmes or plans, but few countries have the ability to enforce these legal provisions or the capacity to administer the programmes,” notes Jose-Antonio Prado, FAO Director of the Forest Resources Division.
High cost of firefighting
Fires are extinguished primarily by ground based suppression forces using hand tools and mechanized equipment. In the Mediterranean ground based firefighters are often reinforced by fixed-wing aircraft, including amphibious planes, and helicopters. It is estimated that five Mediterranean countries (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece) invest more then 2.5 billion euros annually in prevention and suppression, 60 percent of which goes towards meeting the costs of equipment, personnel and operations, with the remainder used for preventive works.
Prevention through education
A key to successful prevention are fire education programmes involving public service campaigns, schools and community groups. In India, for example, awareness-raising projects in communities which led to more involvement in prevention and suppression activities were reported to have reduced fire outbreaks by as much as 90 percent in some regions.
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