Meeting recommends good fire management as key to battling blazes

Globally, 1997 and 1998 were the worst years for forest fires in recent times. In this short period, outbreaks covered the map, reaching from Australia to Peru, from Canada to Kenya. And some continue to burn.

Land that has been cleared by fire (FAO Photo13925)

The extensive media coverage that followed the destructive paths of the fires that raged in Indonesia and Brazil - the countries that lost the largest forest area to fire - contributed to increased public awareness of the global affects of these environmental disasters.

"The impact of many fires extend beyond political borders and are indeed regional and global in extent," said FAO Deputy Director-General David A. Harcharik, former head of the Organization's forestry department. "The smoke and haze from fires in Indonesia, Mexico and Central America, for example, endangered public health, interrupted air traffic, disturbed tourism and commerce and impacted economies far removed from the fires themselves."

This recent wave of great fires mobilized the international community not only to address the emergency response but also to review public policies that contribute directly or indirectly to fire outbreaks.

A Meeting on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires, held at FAO headquarters from 28 to 30 October, brought together more than 70 experts on the subject from governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental groups. The objective of the meeting was to discuss current public policies that affect forest fires and to offer solutions to prevent or reduce the incidence of outbreak.

Extensive drought conditions throughout the world attributed to the El Niño weather phenomenon undoubtedly played an important role in the recent rash of fires, turning moist forests into drier habitats and increasing the flammability of forest vegetation. But most of the forest fires were caused by humans. Arson and negligence are partly to blame, but the main culprit is the use - or misuse - of fire as a land management tool.

Fire is traditionally used throughout much of the world to convert forests into agricultural lands, to maintain grazing lands or to help extract non-wood products from forests. And FAO maintains that fire can and should be used to meet land management goals under specific ecological conditions.

"Reconciling the positive roles of fire as a servant of humankind and the negative effects if fire becomes the master are among the important challenges to policy-makers in sustainable forest and land use management", according to the final report of the meeting.

Ill-conceived forest management policies, including those of total fire exclusion that lead to fuel accumulation and catastrophic outbreaks, are main causes of forest fire incidence and spread. The meeting identified better data collection and dissemination as well as stronger collaboration with those most closely involved and affected by forest fires as key to improved land-use policy development.

While acknowledging that "no single formula can cover the wide range of ecological, socio-economic and cultural conditions that exist between and within regions", the meeting recommended the following broad principles for land or forest use policies related to reducing, mitigating and controlling wildfires and the use of prescribed fires:

  • national and regional policies specifically addressing forest fires should be formulated, as an integral component of land-use polices, where they previously did not exist;
  • clear and measurable policy objectives and implementation strategies are needed to minimize the many adverse affects of uncontrolled fires and to maximize the benefits from fire prevention or the controlled use of fire;
  • all stakeholders must be involved in policy development;
  • a favourable policy environment should be created for all aspects of fire management based on local conditions;
  • policies that tend to increase forest fires (prescribed burning) must consider public health effects.

A series of recommendations were also made to FAO and international organizations to increase and improve collaboration and coordination of forest fire-related activities at the global and regional levels.

The final report of the meeting is intended for policymakers of FAO member countries and will be presented at the fourteenth session of the Organization's Committee on Forestry (COFO), which will meet in Rome in March 1999.

12 November 1998

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