WASHINGTON and ROME, Oct. 22 /PRNewswire/ — Bilateral and multilateral cooperation is crucial to combat and manage forest fires that are increasing at an alarming rate throughout the Western Hemisphere, FAO said today. For the first time ever, the heads of all national forest agencies in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean will meet in the Pan- American Conference on Wildland Fire on 23 October in San Jose, Costa Rica. They will review the status of forest fires in the Americas and create four regional networks to combat forest fires. These networks — for South America, Central America, the Caribbean and North America — will be established under the auspices of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR). “Ad hoc collaboration in training, information sharing and emergency support is no longer sufficient,” said Mike Jurvelius, an FAO forest fire expert. “To properly address the problem of forest fires we need to establish networks, to develop strategies and to facilitate exchange of personnel and equipment in the region.”
Huge damage and cost The area of forests burnt by fires in the region is significant and the costs to suppress them are high. In 2002, the United States recorded the largest area of forests burnt by wildland fires since 1960, at 2.8 million hectares with a cost to US taxpayers of US$1.7 billion for suppression only. This does not include damage to property and lives lost. The trend continues, and already this year, a large fire has erupted in Alaska. In the 1990s, about 1 million hectares were burnt on the average each year both in Argentina and Bolivia, and as much as 1.5 million hectares on the average were burnt per year in Brazil. In 2003, national fire emergencies were declared for both Guatemala and Nicaragua. Large fires roared through the region of Mato Grosso, Brazil, this year. In Canada, an average of 2.5 million hectares per year is being lost to fire, and the cost of fire suppression is between US$300 million and US$500 million annually.
Climate change and poverty fuelling problem Climate change may lead to an increase in forest fires. The El Nino phenomenon, which is a natural climate fluctuation, and hurricanes are causing great fires, and shifting winds are making it more difficult to suppress them, as experienced in the Caribbean this past September. Scientific models suggest an increase in forest fires in many regions following predicted climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions. “Ninety-five percent of uncontrolled forest fires are started by people. The rest are started by lightning,” said Mike Jurvelius. “The fires caused by people include deliberate fires that escape control, as well as fires started by accident or by arsonists,” he said. The capacity to control fires depends on the level of economic development, awareness and application of technology in the country or in the local community. In Latin America, most forest fires occur in poor rural areas where small proprietors do not have the technology to control fires and for whom fire is the only available, easy and inexpensive tool to continue their traditional use of the land. Fires are used to clear land for agriculture or human settlement or to improve the pasture for livestock grazing. Fires are also used to clear areas for hunting. In the Caribbean region, most forest fires are associated with dry forest and higher population densities.
Regional networks to strengthen collaboration To tackle the problem of forest fires in the Americas, FAO supports the establishment of four regional networks involving all responsible ministries, not only those of the environment or forestry that are currently in charge of forest fires, but also of agriculture. The networks will strengthen collaboration in the region, encourage agreements on forest fires and facilitate exchange of technical and human resources. “The networks are necessary in order to promote practical training of personnel, set up databases on forest fires, and exchange information between countries on knowledge gained in preventing and combating forest fires, all of which will facilitate the effective management of forest fires both at the national and the regional level,” Jurvelius said.