The total area of Finland is 338 145 km2, of which the land area is 304 529 km2. Forests cover 68 percent of the total area, i.e. 26 million ha. Finlands forests are in the boreal coniferous forest zone. The most common species are spruce (Picea abies) and pine (Pinus sylvestris) as well as birch (Betula spp.). About 54 percent of the forests are privately owned, 33 percent are owned by the state, 8 percent by forestry enterprises, and 5 percent by others.
The forest fire season in Finland is relatively short, usually starting at the beginning of May and ending in September, i.e. 5-6 months. Finnish summers are cool and relatively wet. In addition, Finland is not too complicated in terms of geography for fire control purposes. There are no mountains and the forest road network is quite extensive. There are also a lot of natural obstacles, including 188 000 lakes, that help keep forest fires quite small. This helps the Finnish forest fire management system to keep the fire problem relatively small in scale as compared to southern Europe.
The Fire Management System
The Finnish fire management system consists of prevention, early warning and suppression as presented in the flow chart (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Finnish forest fire management system
As shown in the flow chart, educational, legislative and technical means are used in fire prevention. People need to be educated to behave in a safe way in the forests. This has been reinforced by legislation. For instance, when a forest fire warning is issued it is against the law to set an open fire inside or near a forest. A forest fire warning is issued when the forest fire index reaches a high level. The Finnish Meteorological Institute publishes a daily fire danger map of Finland. The map is based on the Forest Fire Index Calculation System (Heikinheimo 1998; see also
To provide early warning and information on forest fires the general public is educated to react when they see that something is wrong. In practice this means that they don’t ignore the situation and that they also report by telephone using the emergency number 112. By law, everyone is obligated to inform the authorities about an incident. Airborne surveys and an operational satellite system are examples of technical applications, e.g. an automated fire detection system based on the NOAA AVHRR satellite sensor (Kelhä 1998).
The third part of the system is a fast response. According the law, people are obliged to do their best to reduce the damage in an incident. What can be done depends on the type of the incident and the person. However, the goal is to educate people to do some simple preliminary actions before the fire brigade comes to the incident site. As mentioned before, risk assessment is based on law. Municipalities have to assess the risk of forest fire and have in place suitable personnel and equipment to handle the situation. Forest fire suppression is assisted by technology such as aeroplanes, helicopters and the equipment of the fire brigades.
The Municipal fire brigades do the actual operational response. The local municipal fire officer is responsible for leading the operation inside the local municipal area. Finland is divided into 36 alarm areas. Each alarm area has several municipal fire brigades. If a situation exceeds the local capability, other municipal fire brigades can be called upon for help. In each alarm area there is also regional fire chief. He has the responsibility to take the lead if he thinks it is necessary. The fire officer in charge is responsible for every strategic decision.
The role of the Ministry of the Interior is to insure that all the necessary resources are functional and that in every area there are also enough resources to handle bigger situations. In the case of a large or national catastrophe the Ministry of the Interior takes the lead.
In an operational sense, the governmental and provincial levels dont have much to do as far as daily incidents are concerned. In the case of a national catastrophe, where there are hundreds of thousands of people in danger, these organisations start to function at the operational level.
Forest officials are urged to use more prescribed burning for ecological reasons (see below). This, in fact, would not interfere with fire prevention if the prescribed burns can be properly controlled.
Figure 2. The organisation of fire and rescue services in Finland
Impact of wildfires in Finland
Forest fire is one of many incident types in Finland. We can get a general picture of this when we study the incident statistics. Forest fires form only approximately two percent of all the incidents where the fire brigades respond.
The last reported casualty in a forest fires was at the beginning of the 1980s when a firefighter got lost in a peat fire and died. There was another similar incident in the 1970s.
Property and the environment are mainly at risk from forest fires in Finland. All in all, forest fire damage in Finland has been very low indeed, i.e. less than 10 million Finnish Marks per year. There is no significant damage to ecology or public health.
Forest fire database
The forest fire database in Finland is in an electronic format from 1993 on. However, a new database has been recently introduced in which information from 1995 on is being processed.
The total area burned has been very small over the last two decades as shown in Figure 3 and the statistical table (Table 1).
Figure 3. Average forest area burned annually in Finland by decades since 1952 (in hectares)
Table 1. Wildland fire statistics for Finland, 1990-1999
Total No. of Fires on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land
Total Area Burned on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land
Area of Forest Burned
Area of Other Wooded Land and Other Land Burned
Use of prescribed burning
Fire is an important natural factor in forest ecosystem maintenance and dynamics. The use of prescribed fire has decreased since the 1950’s. The lack of forest fires has caused an impoverishment of biodiversity. In addition, the forests have become denser than before. It is envisaged that in the future prescribed burning programmes will be expanded in order to restore biodiversity. A “let burn” policy is currently being discussed. However, more research on burning behaviour in Finnish forests needs to be done before this could be implemented.
The use of prescribed fire is rare for agricultural maintenance or other vegetation management purposes.
Reducing wildfire hazards
As it was mentioned above, the combination of climatic and biogeographic conditions in Finland does not favour the spread of large, catastrophic wildfires. Therefore, special measures for wildfire hazard reduction are not required.
Public policies concerning fire
Finnish forest officials have urged an increase in the use of prescribed fire. The forest certification procedure also requires a certain amount of prescribed burning. The Finnish Ministry of the Interior accepts prescribed fires if they are properly managed so that they do not cause damage to a third party. Together with the University of Helsinki the Finnish Ministry of the Interior is conducting a research programme on forest fire behaviour (Frelander 2000, Kuuluvainen 2000).
The role of the Finnish Ministry of the Interior is to protect life, property and the environment. With regard to forest fires the aim is to keep the damage as low as it is today. Prescribed fires are acceptable if they are properly managed and confined within prescription.
Frelander, H. 2000. New forest fire risk and fire behaviour research project. International Forest Fire News No. 22, 24.
Heikinheimo, M. 1998. Renewing the system for forest fire risk assessment at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. International Forest Fire News No. 18, 65-67.
Kelhä, V. 1998. Automatic forest fire alert by satellite. International Forest Fire News No. 18, 63-65.
Kuuluvainen, T. 2000. Simulation of disturbance and successional dynamics of natural and managed boreal forest landscapes. International Forest Fire News No. 22, 24.
Ministry of the Interior
P.O. Box 26