It looked like a global Ring of Fire. In mid-1997 the first fire signals came out of the rain forests, swamps and farmlands of the Indonesian archipelago. It looked as they jumped over the Pacific and burned the rain forests of Amazonia and the neighbouring Guyanas, crossing the land bridge to Mexico where they left hundreds of thousands of hectares burned. After sending precursor warning signals – smoke – the fires seemed to leap to the Southeast of the United States. While Florida and Georgia suffered a mix of lightning fires and negligent ignitions started by people, the fire fronts which had crossed the Atlantic were driven by arsonists, right into the center of Athens, burning the hills around the Acropolis. From there it seemed that fires continued to travel East, finally ending at the Eastern edge of Siberia where they are still raging at the time of writing this editorial.
In the media the puzzle of fire reports from all over the globe produced an impression that the globe was set on fire in an unprecedented magnitude. In some cases this was true. Mexico, for instance, suffered its worst fire episode for decades, and the smoke concentration in Malaysia was never as high as it was in the last months of 1997.
There was no Ring of Fire, there was no connectedness of the global fire events at all. The drought caused by El Niño in some places allowed people to burn more than usual, and more wildfires started from escaped land-use fires in drought-stressed rain forests as compared to the last 10 years. In other regions the drought reduced plant growth, thus nothing was left to burn. Ignitions by lightning storms are independent of El Niño and politics, and politically and economically motivated arson does not have any roots in climate variability.
In the public discussion and at the international political level requests for more reliable information on global fire – on good fires as well as on bad fires – increased month by month. This was the moment when several groups of internationally working fire scientists and globally oriented fire managers, which had cultivated the global fire arena in the spirit of international and interdisciplinary cooperation since more than one decade, felt challenged. The UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), new co-sponsor of International Forest Fire News encouraged the representatives of these groups to make global fire issues more transparent for those who make decisions and for those who suffer from the effects of fire. So did other UN organizations, like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) by coordinating the UN response to fire in Indonesia, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in developing collaboration in mitigating the effects of transboundary smoke pollution, the World Health Organization (WHO) in preparing the guidelines for reducing health problems arising from smoke, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) by discussing appropriate strategies for land-use and fire policies.
The IDNDR encouraged to realize what had been proposed by international fire specialists since many years. Through the support through of German IDNDR funds the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) with its core activity, the South East Asian Fire Monitoring Center, is now being created.
The GFMC has been established. Funded by IDNDR, implemented by the Fire Ecology Research Group in the new building at Freiburg Airport (Germany), jointly supported by the UN-FAO/ECE/ILO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire, their 11-years old information platform International Forest Fire News, and the fire research organizations under the umbrella of the IGBP/IGAC, IUFRO and IBFRA (see co-sponsor logos on the hompage) the GFMC will be on the Internet starting in late September 1998.
Internet readers will find all information on global fire which is needed for assessment of current and historic fire situations in many countries, on fire research and technology development, on remotely sensed data on fire, weather and smoke, and on important events such as scientific conferences and political initiatives. The GFMC aims to systematically compile a global fire dataset, an initiative of the Global Vegetation Fire Inventory.