In this contribution the actions that México is carrying out to develop its Forest Fire Prevention and Control Programme and the results of the last 10 years are presented.
Biogeography of México: The Mexican Republic is located between the United States of America in the North and Guatemala and Belize in the South and Southwest, between the parallels 15° and 32° N. Three main vegetation types are distinguished:
Temperate-Cold Forest: Formed mainly by the coniferous species Pinus spp. and Abies spp. and by the broadleaved species Quercus spp. and Alnus spp. This forest region occupies an estimated area about 30 million hectares.
Tropical Forest: This forest zone is characterized by great species diversity among which the most important representatives are Cedrela, Swietenya, Achras, Brosimum, Cordia, Metopium, Dialium, and others. This forest region covers an area of 26 million hectares.
Arid Zone: The vegetation is represented by species of Opuntia, Acacias, Agaves, and others. This ecoregion occupies an estimated area about 58 million hectares.
Causes of deterioration of the ecosystems: It is estimated that 600,000 hectares of forest are destroyed annually. The main cause (90%) is attributed to deforestation (forest conversion) for agricultural purposes. Forest fires barely contribute to ca. 2.2% of the total destruction (Fig.1).
Fire Causes: In México the rural communities use fire for their agricultural activities. It is considered that the main share (60%) of wildfires is caused by grassland burning and the practice of shifting cultivation in the tropical zone (Tab.1).
Tab.1. Causes of wildfires in México
Other (illegal land occupation, power lines, lightning)
Roads and Railroads
Other land-use Activities
Types of Fires: It is considered that 90% of the total fires are surface fires, and only 10% are crown and ground fires. Surface fires mainly affect the herbaceous vegetation layer and the natural regeneration of the forest, and are relatively easy to control.
Organization of Fire Control: The Federal Government, through the Secretary of Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries (SEMARNAP), is responsible for the control of forest fires. At the administrational and operational levels the Subsecretary of Natural Resources acts through 32 Delegations in all the States of the Republic. Its authorization and action is based mainly on the Forest Law, the Law of Ecological Balance and Protection to the Environment, and on the Mexican Official Standard about the use of fire.
Resources: The resources for fire management provided by SEMARNAP are given in Table 2.
Tab.2. Fire management resources in México
Look out towers
Aerial Equipment: Recently SEMARNAP acquired one Bell 212 helicopter, one Bell 206, and two light fixed-wing airplanes (Cessna T-310). These are used for fire detection and the transport of firefighters. At the critical time of fires (March-May) SEMARNAP rents helicopters from private companies.
Coordination with other Agencies: A key element in the fire programme is the efficient coordination with other government agencies, such as the Secretary of the National Defense (Army), the Secretary of Marine, the Secretary of Government, the State Governments, as well as the owners of forests and volunteers. In 1996, for instance, the army supported control efforts in 287 forest fires with 13,555 soldiers and contributed substantially to reduce the risk of large fire situations.
The National Fire Programme
The National Fire Programme consists of three major elements, the prevention, the detection and combat of wildfires.
Prevention: The prevention element comprises all those actions that are dedicated to avoiding the presence of fires in the forests and to increase the awareness of the population about the importance of forests and forest protection. The prevention programme includes the involvement of mass media (TV, radio, press, etc.), the use of flyers, the organization of conferences and other direct actions with the inhabitants of the rural areas.
The prevention programme includes the use of prescribed burning and the establishment of control/buffer lines in zones of high risk in order to diminish the probability of occurrence and spread of wildfires.
The prevention programme also includes training and the provision of equipment. In the last fire season the prevention programme carried out 21,912 prescribed burns and established 6,292 kilometres of control/buffer lines.
Detection: An early and opportune detection which leads to the fast response and rapid control of the fire assures the reduction of large fires which are economically expensive and environmentally destructive. Means of detection utilize the full terrestrial and aerial support of the organization (e.g., fire towers, airplanes), commercial airlines, and the general public. A national telephone number has been established to which the public could call to report fires without cost.
In the last fire season a total of 40,227 terrestrial patrols, 64 operating lookout towers and 136 hours of aerial detection were involved in the programme.
Fire Control: The fire control programme includes all infrastructures, equipment and operations required to suppress wildfires. The available resources are listed above. In the fire season of 1997 more than 98,000 firefighters from all agencies were involved in fire control operations.
Fire statistics at the national level for the past ten years (1987-96) are compiled in Table 3. As of 10 July 1997 (date of writing this report) a total of 5,105 fires were counted, affecting 107,237 hectares. Out of this area burned, 70% are grasslands and brushlands which usually recover in the following rainy season/vegetation period. 30% of the land area affected by fire is forested, with varying degrees of damages. Comparing the data of 1997 with 1996 it can be seen that the number of fires was reduced by 45% and the area burned by 56% (Tab.4).
The fire season normally includes the months of January to August, the most critical being March, April, and May (Fig.2 and 3).
Tab.3. Wildland fire statistics of México for the decade1987-96.
Number of Fires
Area burned (ha)
Tab.4. Comparison of wildland fire data for the years 1996 and1997
Number of Fires
Area Burned (ha)
National Average (ha/fire)
Fig.2. Average distribution of fire occurrence in Méxicobetween January and August.
Fig.3. Average distribution of area burned by wildlandfires in México between January and August.
The ten states with highest fire occurrence contributed to 62.27% of the total area affected by fires in the 1997 season (Tab.5).
Tab.5. Fire statistics of the 10 States of México most affected bywildfires
Number of Forest Fires
Area Burned (ha)
% of National Total
México has considerably improved the preparedness and management capabilities to cope with the problem of wildland fires during the past ten years. México has received support in special fire management training from the United States of America, Canada and Spain, and expresses appreciation for this support.
Fighting forest fires requires enormous financial budgets, but it is without doubt that the combat of fire is less expensive when it is either prevented or controlled before it becomes too large. Therefore fire prevention must receive more attention.
From: Oscar Cedeño Sanchez Director de Protección Address: Dirección General Forestál Progreso No.5 Col el Carmen Coyacán C.P.04110 México, D.F.