The wildland fire problem

An integrated approach to reduce fire losses

27 July 2009, RomeEvery year fires affect an estimated 350 million hectares of land, with damage to property, livelihoods and frequently loss of life. Uncontrolled vegetation fires also contribute to global warming, air pollution, desertification and loss of biodiversity. Fire prevention is one of the most effective counter measures, and efficient fire monitoring can help in early warning, intervention decision- making and measuring impacts.  

Developing countries are often the most susceptible to the damaging impacts of fire which causes loss of human lives and property and destruction of natural resources.

In Ethiopia and South Sudan, fires destroy millions of hectares of land each year. Between 2000 and 2008, over 200 000 fires were reported in Sudan. In Ethiopia, the number of fires registered was over 400 000 in the same period.
In early 2009 forest fires caused millions of dollars worth of damage in California and in the Australian state of Victoria. The bush fire that swept through Victoria in February 2009 killed 173 people, left 7 500 people homeless, destroyed about 2000 houses, blackened 450 000 ha of land and the total insurance costs for the fires could amount to $1.5 billion. 

Recently, 10 000 people were evacuated due to uncontrolled fires in Western Canada. Huge numbers of fire fighters have also been deployed in Greece, Spain, Southern France, and the Italian island of Sardenia where fires have been raging with resulting destruction to property and a number of deaths among fire fighters.

Whose responsibility is it?

Growing population density escalates fire risk due to the increased demand for land and other natural resources. While by far the largest number of fires are human-induced, either through negligence, economic interests, careless use of fire in agriculture and pasture lands, illegal land clearing or arson, there are also concerns that building in areas of high fire risk exacerbates problems of fire control and management.

Should governments put money and human lives at risk in fire-susceptible zones allowing people to choose to live in high fire-risk areas without taking suitable prevention measures?

Such measures include cutting back bush and scrub located in close proximity to human dwellings which are not built in accordance with fire safety regulations. Prescribed well controlled burning to reduce fire risk also forms part of such measures. Both government and citizens have responsibilities in this.

Fire management is becoming increasingly a complex issue that requires the involvement of different sectors and interest groups to be effective. 

Fire monitoring

As bush and forest fires have increased both in frequency and severity, in areas such as the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and North America, fire control is vital to human health, environmental protection, and natural resources management. 

Increasingly, satellites provide the means to monitor fires, by delivering real time information to fire management services. FAO, working together with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) use satellites to monitor fires by creating a fire early warning system, providing data on forest fire location and estimating loss of biomass and biodiversity. At the same time field measurements are essential to validate satellite data. 

Participation of local communities

Involvement of local communities is crucial to reduce wildland fires and their impact. For this reason, most FAO field projects in fire management include activities with local communities to assist in fire prevention, monitoring and control. 

These include awareness raising campaigns, capacity building and equipping of community fire brigades. 

Integrated fire management

Given the complexity of fire management, policies should have an integrated approach with a right balance and due attention and resources set aside for all related activities. These include fire prevention, early warning, monitoring and assessment, fire preparedness, fire suppression, but also restoration following fires.

FAO works with developing countries to strengthen their capacity to implement the principles and actions as detailed in the FAO coordinated Fire management Voluntary guidelines

Fires occur in and outside forests and affect both forests and other land uses. Thus integrated fire management encompasses all types of vegetation fires – forests, woodlands, shrublands, rangelands, grasslands, and pasture lands.  

Photo: ©FAO/R. Faidutti
Forest fire, Central African Republic