In the Editorial of International Forest Fire News No. 24(April 2001) the rationale and a short overview of the FAO Global Forest FireAssessment 1990-2000 within the Forest Resources Assessment 2000(FRA) has been presented. Most of the country contributions that includestatistical wildland fire data and narrative information regarding the firesituation in the 1990s have been prepared for publication in IFFN and the FAOreport. This special issue of IFFN includes national fire reports from Asia andthe Pacific. Meanwhile the FAO “FAO Global Forest Fire Assessment1990-2000” has been published in full length on the internet. The websiteaddress on which the report can be downloaded (PDF; size: 6 MB) is:
Through a cooperative arrangement with the Global FireMonitoring Center (GFMC) more country profiles will be added successively to theFAO website.
Australia’s Christmas Fires of 2001-2002
During the preparation of this IFFN issue Australia’s ChristmasFires burned between end of December 2001 and mid of January 2002. Somemedia called this fire episode as Australia’s “worst fire disaster inhistory.” However, when the fires were terminated by rains by mid January2002 the losses were less severe than anticipated. About 600,000 hectares hadbeen affected by wildfires, a total of 120 houses burnt down, 3000 sheep werekilled. These damages should be compared with the impacts of the AshWednesday Fires of 1983 that occurred during the drought caused by theextreme El Niño of 1982-83. At that time thehuman death toll was 75, a total of 2539 houses burned and about 300,000domestic livestock were killed y the fires. Satellite-derivedburned area assessments included in the Australia country report in this issueof IFFN reveal that in the two fire seasons 1998-99 and 1999-2000 a total of ca.345,000 wildland fires were recorded in the whole of Australia affecting 31.2and 71.2 million hectares respectively.
It is well known that Australia’s ecosystem are welladapted to fire. Human-caused fires have been documented for the last 60,000years. Natural- and human-caused fires of varying intensities and severities areinherent elements of ecosystem dynamics. Apparently the impacts of the 2001-02fires in Australia were relatively small compared to earlier extreme events oraverages of vegetated area affected by fire. Why were these fires considered amajor disaster?
First, the fires burned at the wildland-urban interface.This interface is a broad belt of urban development sprawling into thesurrounding bush and forests. Similar to the exurban trends in North America theAustralian cities expand horizontally rather than vertically. The highlyflammable properties of Australia’s bush and forest vegetation in which suburbanhouses are embedded represent an extremely high hazard for these houses,especially considering the fact that the houses are often wooden constructions.
Second, prescribed burning as a standard fire managementpractice in Australia is difficult to apply in this intermix situation.Prescribed burning aims at reducing fuel loads (combustible materials) on theforest floor and understory under controllable conditions in order to reduce theenergy potential and to avoid high-intensity fires that are difficult tocontrol.
Third, the Christmas Fires of 2001-2002 were caused by anunprecedented amount of arson. What was new in the situation was the high shareof young people setting these fires purposely. The assumption that urban kidsliving in the exurban environment and not being aware of the consequences oftheir doing because of a lack of environmental awareness and responsibility,however, must be proved.
The coincidence of weather conditions favourable for thespread of large, high-intensity fires, and the above-mentioned circumstancesreveal an increased vulnerability of the post-modern society, especially thoseliving at the edge of or within a system in which fire is a common and needednatural phenomenon.