Forests and Wildfires: Fixing the Future by Avoiding the Past

Peter Moore 1, Jeff Hardesty 2, Stephen Kelleher 3, Stewart Maginnis 4 and Ron Myers 2


Each year wildfires destroy 6 to 14 million hectares of fire-sensitive forests worldwide, a rate of loss and degradation comparable to that of destructive logging and agricultural conversion. At the same time, many fire-adapted forest ecosystems are fire-starved. Humans, including government departments charged with the management of forest resources, are altering natural fire regimes around the world without regard to long-term consequences. Decision-makers and the public are better at reacting to short-term recurring crises than focusing resources on long-term and sustainable solutions.

Integrated approaches to fire management place greater emphasis on addressing underlying causes and seek long-term, sustainable solutions that incorporate five essential elements: 1) Analysis of the fire issue and identification of options for positive change; 2) Prevention - focusing resources on the underlying causes of altered fire regimes; 3) Use - applying fire as a beneficial and appropriate management tool; 4) Response - ensuring appropriate responses to inevitable wildfires; and 5) Restoration - restoring fire-damaged ecosystems, and re-establishing natural fire regimes.

Resources need to be redirected to support research that improves the understanding of fire causes, identifies existing management practices that encourage harmful fires and promotes management systems that mimic natural fire regimes or take advantage of well-established fire use. Finally, key stakeholders, especially local communities, need to be involved in fire management planning, while a concerted effort is required to develop compatible and mutually reinforcing land-use laws for appropriate fire use.

Forest Fires are a growing problem

Throughout the world, forest fires are out of control - not because of conflagrations regularly featured on our televisions, but fundamentally because governments, international agencies and importantly, communities have failed to agree on how fires should be managed. This lack of clarity, further muddled by fires and fire-related risks being used to promote a complex mix of narrow interests, means that forest fires will remain a source of bitter controversy, expense and damage into the future. In this paper we seek to step back, reflect, consider what we know and suggest a way forward.

Fire problems are increasing. Many millions of hectares have burnt in the last three decades, affecting health and livelihoods for tens of millions of people costing billions of dollars. These problems have caught the attention of governments, donors and NGOs who made large investments in fire management projects: for example over 30 projects followed the 1997/98 fires in Indonesia and more than $6 billion devoted to the US National Fire Plan. Yet paradoxically this reaction can itself be part of the problem. Dealing with fires has often been interpreted as putting out fires or adding capacity to put out fires, yet this approach is not working. Often the messages conveyed to decision-makers and the public presents a very simple picture of a complex situation:

Overly simplistic explanations of forest fires tend to encourage decision-makers to the view that fire fighting is the main solution to harmful forest fires. To date, inadequate attention has been paid to addressing underlying causes and to preventing a downward spiral of recurrent fire and degradation in burnt areas.

Understanding Forest Fires

In the USA, where huge efforts go into fire control, fires are estimated to have cost US$1.6 billion to fight in 2001 with more huge expenditure in 2002. Most governments are in denial about the scale of the problem and the failure of current approaches. As shown vividly in the USA recently with arguments that fire risk justifies logging old-growth forests, science is repeatedly over-simplified and distorted by politics, so that fire becomes another pawn in the never-ending chess match over control and exploitation of natural resources. Dealing with fire continues to be a reflex reaction, not a proactive approach, despite mounting evidence that fire control technology has manifestly failed to solve the fire `problem'.

Globally, most forest fires are probably now directly or indirectly influenced by humans. In wet tropical areas, humans set most fires, not least because it is a cheap and simple land management tool, and for poorer people or smallholders the only option. Even in those areas that are hot and dry for part of each year, where frequent fires would be expected, human influence has now become so pervasive that most fires are `unnatural' -only 1-5 per cent of fires in the Mediterranean countries of Europe now start through natural causes.

For millennia fire has been used by hunter-gathers and in slash and burn agriculture with little negative impact on biological diversity. The drastic large-scale forest change in the wet tropics is a more recent phenomenon; driven by land use policies that benefit logging, plantation establishment or large-scale ranching at the expense of traditional land rights.

Governments need to recognise that there are some aspects of forest fires that they cannot control and that they can't stop all fires: some are necessary, some are useful and accidents or deliberate fire-setting will always occur to some extent. However, those responsible for land management can help manage the ways and extent to which people create conditions that encourage fire, particularly the build-up of inflammable material. Fire can be reintroduced to landscapes where its short-term absence will lead to larger scale and more intense fires in the future. Governments can do more to address issues of governance and the breakdown of the rule of law: many fires are set in, for example, Indonesia, the Mediterranean and Brazil because those behind the fires are confident they won't suffer consequences from their actions. Perhaps most important of all, governments need to decide exactly what they are trying to achieve, in terms of amounts of fire, zoning of fires and levels of risk. Until we know where we are going, we are unlikely to get there. Managing fires has more to do with agreeing aims and ways of cooperation as with technological sophistication or the size of fire-fighting teams.

The effect of forest fires

The immediate impacts of fires can be devastating to human communities and forest ecosystems. In the longer term, they can adversely affect the supply of environmental services necessary for the well-being of local communities, threaten the survival of endangered species, simplify the structure and composition of biologically important forest, and provide conditions suitable for entry of invasive species.

However it is also important to understand that the role of fire varies among different types of forest. For example, in tropical dry forest, boreal forests and some types of conifer forests, a certain amount of fire is an essential factor in the maintenance of forest structure, function and plant and animal composition. Conversely, in tropical moist forest, fire is usually always detrimental

Fire regimes can and do change over time, through natural causes and from human intervention. In many forest areas fire regimes have been altered substantially by hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years of human use. For example, aboriginal fire regimes in Australia over thousands of years have had a major influence on the "natural" extent and distribution of eucalyptus forests, dry woodlands and rainforests. Thus understanding a fire regime for any given forest is essential to the development of sound forest and fire management strategies.

The causes of forest fires

People light forest fires for many reasons. Some fires are started for practical and beneficial reasons, some are accidental, and others are deliberately lit to cause damage. All fires have the potential to be harmful to forest ecosystems or human communities, depending on both the condition of the forest at the time and how they are managed once they are burning.

Just how harmful a forest fire can be is strongly influenced by the amount and condition of fuel available to burn (leaf litter, bark, leaves and branches). In most cases forest management practices help shape these factors. For example:

For many years United States forest managers allowed the accumulation of large amounts of fuel in Western forests by attempting to totally exclude fire - eventually this created conditions for very destructive wildfires that are proving impossible to contain.

In some tropical forests conventional logging practices have encouraged harmful dry season fires through accumulation of large amounts of logging waste and forest drying caused by increased canopy openings. There is strong evidence that reduced impact logging can minimise the opportunities for this sort of fire.

In other cases, harmful forest fires are a symptom of the same underlying causes that drive forest loss and degradation: perverse economic incentives; ill-defined or inequitable land tenure; failure to enforce laws and regulations; failure to recognise and respect customary law; lack of economic opportunities for rural dwellers living in and around protected areas, and weak or under-resourced government institutions. These factors play a major role in determining how forests are exploited and managed, hence the creation of fuels or changes to them and changes in fire regimes, thus influencing both the likelihood of harmful wildfires to occur and their ultimate destructive potential. Unfortunately few governments have shown willingness to address these underlying causes of forest fire, degradation and loss.

Rethinking fires

The world has two problems with fire: an increase in unwanted fires and a parallel reduction in necessary fires. Each year fires affect huge areas of forest, grasslands and scrub that would not burn under natural circumstances. Conversely, each year many natural or beneficial fires are suppressed, which will also have negative impacts over the long term. Which are which and what should we be doing about them?

Part of the confusion is caused because land managers react to fires without a common frame of reference that would enable systematic analysis. Instead, it is assumed that fire `problems' are created by lack of capacity to extinguish fires. Consequently management efforts focus on professional fire-fighting capacity, largely ignoring the potential role of communities and overlooking analysis, prevention, fire use and restoration.

To develop a measured response to fires we need to think through all components of fire management, as summarised in the accompanying diagram (Figure 1). While many of these issues are known to fire managers they are generally not considered as a collective whole. If this is done, different responses to fire problems can be assessed by checking on the balance of the components.

At present, analysis is often done only when a fire commences, and is then mainly influenced by political pressures created by dramatic fire images and by immediate responses needed to protect people, landscapes and assets. A better response would be to start analysis in fire prone areas before a fire begins, work out the amount of effort, thinking and resources that have been applied to the entire fire management system and consider re-balancing management if indicated. Although understood in theory, this is not often carried out for various reasons:

In most cases no overall fire management framework is available for people to consider and apply.

There is a widely held view in some places that all fire is negative and something to fear, prompting the idea that fires are a suppression challenge rather than a symptom of underlying management problems.

The most dramatic part of fire management is response - fire suppression. Fires are an obvious `enemy' and clear consensus about addressing burning fires is more socially and politically expedient than addressing the complicated questions involved in long-term fire prevention.

Arguments often take place without reference to scale. The sources of ignition and fuels are present at the local scale. The systems and frameworks of fire management are often best established at provincial level, while monitoring and analysis are usually best dealt with at national scale. Yet discussion and debate often take place without reference to appropriate scales of intervention.

There can be no blueprint to managing harmful forest fires and fire risks to people and ecosystems. Each situation has its own ecological, social, economic and political circumstances that need to be evaluated. Still, many governments continue to pursue a "one size fits all" strategy that places undue emphasis on fighting forest fires through advanced technologies. While such an approach escalates expenditure it fails to address underlying causes that lead to the repeated occurrence of harmful forest fires. Effective and efficient fire management is built on past learning and requires the engagement of a wide variety of concerned stakeholders (governmental, non-government, community and private sectors) in the planning and implementation of a strategy that includes:

Analysis - a strong insight into the aspects and perspectives of the fire issue is an obvious requirement prior to heavy investment or efforts on fires and their use. Surprisingly the basic data and information to enable analysis and definition of the nature, issues and elements of fire are not well known nor systematically collected.

Prevention - many forest fires need not occur, however they will continue to ignite and degrade forests as long as governments fail to focus on both the direct and underlying causes of forest fires. In practice this means that governments must develop and implement programmes that influence people to modify the way they use fire. Governments, industry and other land managers must also invest in fire management before the event, equipping forest managers with the appropriate skills and resources and ensure that those whose livelihoods are most at risk from forest fires, i.e. local communities, can participate in, and share the benefits of, successful prevention strategies.

Use - allowing the effective use of fire for its positive outcomes and to meet objectives for ecosystem management and sustainable natural resource use. The value of traditional fire use needs to be evaluated and recognised. Often, ways will need to be found to maintain or improve this through technologically and ecologically designed prescribed burns.

Response - being sufficiently prepared and ensuring an appropriate response to forest fires when they occur are key factors in effective and efficient fire management. It is essential to have plans and resources in place prior to fires occurring. Responsible authorities need to have a range of options available, know which fires to suppress and which to allow to burn, mechanisms for monitoring fire danger and identifying fires which require action, and clear responsibilities and coordination mechanisms.

Restoration - after forest fires have been extinguished there remains the need to prevent a spiral of recurrent fire and further degradation in the short-term, and to help re-establish the forest's original structure, biodiversity and functionality, over the long term. Failure to consider appropriate restoration strategies results in vulnerable people living in ever more precarious situations.

Time To Act On Forest Fires

Current resources need to be redirected to support research that improves the understanding of fire causes and affects and identifies existing management practices that predispose ecosystems to harmful fires. Forest departments need to invest more in the promotion of management systems that mimic natural fire regimes or take advantage of well-established fire use or natural fire; develop tactics to prevent recurring harmful fires; establish reliable fire monitoring programs and strengthen the involvement of key stakeholders, especially local communities, in fire management.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) have come together to work proactively with multi-lateral agencies, governments, private sector and local communities to develop integrated fire management approaches that address underlying causes and develop long-term sustainable solutions. The core elements of such an approach must include:


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A Framework for Fire Management (source Metis Associates)

System Tools

System Process Components


Maps (vegetation type topography, land tenure, assets, roads, landscape features, ignition distribution etc)

Fire behaviour prediction tools

Spatial databases

Demographic information

Cultural & Social Context of fire

Ecological response to fire (fire histories, fire effects information, fire regimes, conceptual models)


1. Fire Likelihood -Ignition history

2. Consequence of Fire on Assets

Economic Intensity Value

Social Spread Rate Vulnerability

Environmental Duration

3. Ecological context of fire



Fire use laws/regulations, enforcement programs

Planning controls

Education programs

Fire behaviour guides, ignition and control resources, planning and reporting tools.

Firebreak construction guides

Building construction codes

Ecological fire training

Fire use education


Ignition Reduction Strategies

- Regulate fire use, educate fire users, technology improvements, development planning controls

Impact Mitigation Strategies

- Fuel reduction (e.g. by burning, grazing & other means)

- Reduce asset vulnerability (e.g. through building construction standards)

- Establish/maintain containment features (e.g. Roads, firebreaks fuel breaks etc)

Fire Use Strategies

- Ecosystem maintenance

- Fire regime restoration

Improvement -


Climate and weather monitoring & prediction

Fire Danger Rating system.

FDR public notification means.

Detection & suppression resource needs assessment.

Fire detection, suppression & communications resources.

Fire training systems and tools



- Early Warning/Predictive systems

- Community warning mechanisms

- Detection and response infrastructure

- Communications systems

- Mobilisation & co-ordination plans

- Response triggers and levels

- Competent fire control staff



Response mobilisation plans

Operational responsibilities and procedures.

Strategic information access tools

Decision support tools

Operational management systems


Detection and Reporting

First Response

Containment and Control

Mop Up and Patrol

Command and Control

& Review


Damage assessment tools

Recovery assistance plans and infrastructure


Community Welfare assistance

Economic loss reduction (e.g. salvage logging and replanting, infrastructure repair)

Environmental repair


1 IUCN / WWF (Joint Fire Management Specialist), c/o CIFOR, P.O. Box 6596 JKPWB, Jakarta, Indonesia, +62-251-622 622, [email protected]; http://www.pffsea.com/

2 TNC- The Nature Conservancy, 4245 North Fairfax Drive, Arlington, Virginia, USA; +1 (352) -392-7006, [email protected]; http://www.nature.org

3 WWF-US - World Wildlife Fund, 1250 24th Street, NW, Washington, DC, USA. +1 (202) -778-9533; [email protected]; http://www.panda.org/home.htm

4 IUCN - The World Conservation Union, Rue Mauvernay 28, Gland CH-1196 Switzerland. +41-22-999 0264, [email protected], http://www.iucn.org/