Final Report of the FAO Consultation “Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires” (IFFN No. 20 – March 1999)

Final Report of the FAO Consultation “Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires”

(IFFN No. 20 – March 1999,p. 80-84)

Seventy-one participants from thirty three countries and thirteen international organisations, drawn from many different sectors including the private sector and NGOs, and representing a wide range of land use and other disciplines, met at FAO Headquarters from 28 to 30 October 1998 to:

  • identify, analyse and discuss the public policies which contribute to forest fires

  • collate information from institutions dealing with forest fires

  • produce recommendations on planning and policies for fire prevention, control, mitigation, rehabilitation measures

  • provide a strong message to member countries through FAO (as neutral forum) on policy issues related to fire

  • suggest actions to be taken by countries through a statement to the forestry ministers who will meet in Rome in March 1999.

This report is based on the outputs of the meeting.

1 Preamble

Nearly all countries, in every stage of economic development, and in every eco-region, are suffering the environmental, social and economic consequences of forest fires. These consequences have broader implications beyond the forest itself and beyond national boundaries, including tragic impacts on human health and lives. The recent occurrences of drought associated with the El Niño phenomenon have brought the effects of forest fires to the world’s attention.

But the effects of fires are not all negative. Fire is a natural process that influences and is integral to many ecosystems which have evolved in response to the effects of fire. Traditional knowledge of fire as a tool is deeply embedded in the cultures of developing and developed countries alike. Fire is still essential for land clearing to meet the food requirements of most developing countries and as part of their development process, while in other countries fire is used to achieve a wide variety of resource management objectives.

Reconciling the positive roles of fire as a servant of humankind and the negative effects if fire becomes the master are among the important challenges to policy makers in sustainable forest and land use management.

2 Present situation

The present situation of national policy development in response to wildfires is often of ad hoc reaction to a situation that has already developed, rather than proactive mitigation before the emergency arises. Frequently policy development does not consider the underlying causes of fire incidence and spread which may lie outside the forest sector, such as rural poverty and deprivation, or the effects of other public policies related to land use and incentives. Sometimes forest fire incidence and spread may be caused by ill-conceived forest management policies, in particular policies of total fire exclusion that have led to fuel accumulation and catastrophic fire outbreaks.

In general, land-use policy development is seldom based on reliable data or information on the implications of forest fire extent or causes, nor has it involved consultative or participatory processes with those most closely involved and affected. Even where policies linked to reducing the incidence and damage of forest fires are in place, there may be institutional weaknesses that do not allow them to be enforced, arising from shortage of public funding due to political instability or economic weaknesses.

3 Preliminary action needed to develop public policies related to fire management and sustainable land use practices

There is a need for reliable and up to date systems for national, regional and global fire reporting, analysis and storage of data. Such data, and information on fire causes and socio-economic and environmental effects, are required as a sound basis for policy making. Linked to these is the requirement for international agreement on terms and definitions as a basis for information-sharing and communication.

Information on resource management alternatives and their consequences is essential for involvement of all stakeholders in policy formulation and development.

4 Conclusions and recommendations to member countries regarding the principles for policies for sustainable land or forest use related to the reduction, mitigation and control of wildfires and the use of prescribed fires

No single formula can cover the wide range of ecological, socio-economic, and cultural conditions that exist between and within regions, nor the different objectives that different societies will decide. But there exist certain broad principles common to all situations and objectives, which include the following:

  • The formulation of national and regional policies specifically addressing forest fires, as an integral component of land-use policies, where they previously did not exist.

  • Flexibility in policy implementation, and the capability to review and revise fire-related policies

  • Clear and measurable policy objectives and implementation strategies are needed to minimise the many adverse effects of uncontrolled fires and to maximise the benefits from fire prevention, or from the controlled use of fire. Such objectives and implementation strategies would provide for sustainable land use practices, compatible inter-sectoral policies, joint fire management responsibilities at the community level, and the participation of the private sector and NGOs.

  • Involvement of all stakeholders in policy development, especially through devolved or community forestry approaches. Recognition by decision-makers that sustainable land management may in many instances only be attained through devolution of control of forest resources and the involvement of the communities adjacent to or within forest in all aspects of management and fire protection. Such devolved approaches will require the revision of existing policies and laws and introduction of appropriate land-tenure arrangements to provide incentives for equitable local/community based participation in forest management and fire protection and control.

  • A favourable policy environment must be created for all aspects of systematic fire management (prevention, detection, suppression, prescribed fire, post-fire rehabilitation etc.) and for an appropriate balance between prevention, suppression and prescribed fire use, based on local conditions. Such an environment should attempt to quantify the monetary and non-market values in order to emphasise the costs and benefits to society and to decision-makers.

  • Policies are required for other forms of land-use, in particular credit policies should encourage land-use options that do not further contribute to deforestation.

  • Policies that tend to increase forest fires must consider public health effects. Policies concerned with maintaining the health of ecosystems that are fire-adapted may have to balance public health and forest health issues.

  • Land-use policies may have to consider the need for appropriate incentives and subsidies to promote fire prevention.

Some technical aspects may support policy formulation and implementation. They include:

Systematic or Integrated Fire Management

  • devote more human and financial resources on fire prevention than at present in order to reduce the subsequent need and expense for fire suppression;

  • policies should promote and regulate prescribed fire for a variety of land management purposes, including the reduction of hazardous fuels, and should promote public understanding of the purposes of prescribed burning (The perverse effect of provisions of the Kyoto Protocol of the Framework Convention on Climate Change regarding carbon emissions arising from prescribed burning in Annex 1 countries was noted. Prescribed fires are caused by humans and thus count as emissions against a country’s carbon balance, while a disastrous fire that arises naturally because of a failure to reduce fuel loads does not.);

  • policies should define the process whereby fire management plans are developed to achieve the resource management objectives of conservation units;

  • develop educational, extension, and public awareness programmes on fire in general and on policy-related matters in particular, appropriate to the needs of various stakeholders;

  • vigorous training programmes in all aspects of fire management and at all levels including volunteer community fire-fighting brigades and the training of farmers in safe fire use;

  • integration of fire management planning with inter-sectoral resource planning;

  • encourage silvicultural practices that sustain healthy ecosystems which in turn reduce the impacts of fires;

  • develop policies for a fire command structure that clearly delineates authorities and responsibilities of the various agencies involved;

  • considering the threat from fires burning in radioactively contaminated vegetation a special fire management programme must be developed for the radioactively contaminated regions in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus with high priority. This would include also careful recording of data and experience for any future similar emergency.

Institutional Co-operation

  • encourage fire management cost-sharing among all relevant stakeholders at all levels;

  • develop inter-sectoral co-operation at national and local levels;

  • develop international agreements that facilitate the exchange of expertise;

  • develop capacity building in fire management.

Restoration / Rehabilitation

  • salvage useable resources following fires;

  • encourage natural recovery through protection whenever possible for the purpose of maintaining genetic integrity;

  • undertake re-stocking where necessary;

  • restore the infrastructure and rehabilitate local communities.

Technology / Research / Information

New technologies offer the means to introduce new and more environmentally and socially acceptable land use management policies; particular attention is drawn to “zero-burning” land clearing techniques.

Fire research at national and regional levels needs to be strengthened in order to support development of fire policies and fire management capabilities, especially related to investigations into socio-economic and cultural aspects of fire outbreaks. Fire research is needed into a number of topics:

  • the development of new dedicated space-borne remote sensing technologies for improving decision support in fire management including sensor technologies for fire detection and early warning of fire.

  • post-fire recovery techniques and fire effects and ecosystem recovery processes.

  • the impact of climate change on fire regimes and fire severity.

Existing accumulated experience should not be neglected, and local indigenous knowledge should be acquired on traditional fire related cultures and customs as a guide for fire management practices and policies.

Evaluation systems should be developed to assess fire damage and benefits and to draw attention to the true costs and benefits of fires.

Policies and techniques that aim to increase agricultural productivity, while providing and enforcing disincentives for reckless programmes, will slow forest conversion for unsustainable agriculture and will thus reduce forest fire damage.

5 Conclusions and recommendations to FAO and international organisations

There are many international organisations, including FAO, other UN-agencies and NGOs, involved in forest fire-related activities at global and regional levels. Continued and improved collaboration and co-ordination are urged.

Transboundary or regional agreements for collaboration in fire management need to be developed, with the technical and financial support of international organisations.

International organisations are further urged to support the design and implementation of a global fire inventory or reporting system, in close collaboration with the fire science community and end-users. An internationally harmonised fire management terminology is required to support such global or regional fire reporting systems.

A global fire information system is needed to provide immediate access to real-time data and information on current fires, archived information, and other sources which are needed by countries to develop fire management programmes, increase preparedness and respond to outbreaks at national, regional and global levels.

FAO and other international organisations should play a catalytic role in the establishment of networks, to promote the sharing of information and knowledge and technical co-operation between developing countries. Sufficient resources should be allocated for these purposes.

Guidelines and codes of practice for fire prevention and control are also required, not only in the forest sector but in any sector that could impact on forest fires (e.g. road alignments, power lines).

Technical assistance, from FAO or other international organisations, is still required, particularly in institutional support and capacity-building.


In preparation of the expert meeting in Rome a current global state-of-the knowledge summary on “Public Policies Affecting Fire” was prepared by the FAO. Five regional reports which cover (1) Europe and temperate-boreal Asia, (2) the Mediterranean region, (3) Africa, (4) Asia-Pacific, and (5) the Americas will be published as conference proceedings. They will be ready by May 1999. The official contact address for the proceedings is:


Gillian Allard
Forestry Officer (Protection) Forest Resources Development Service
Forest Resources Division, Forestry Department
Via delle Terme di Caracalla
I – 00100 Rome
ITALY Fax: ++39-06-57055137
Tel: ++39-06-57053373

IFFN No. 20


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