Foresters in the United States get plenty of news about wildfires when they occur here at home, but we don’t hear much about fire in the rest of the world. Yet wildland fire is as much a part of-and a problem in-forests and grasslands in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
On average, nearly 2.5 million acres burn each year in both Argentina and Bolivia. About 3.5 million acres burn annually in Brazil. In 1998, during a strong El Niño event, more than 2 million acres burned in Mexico and nearly 1.7 million acres in Guatemala In 2003, both Guatemala and Nicaragua declared national fire emergencies. In October, hundreds of fires burned across parts of Bolivia and Brazil.
TheUnited States, Mexico, and Canada have long-standing agreements to cooperatewith each other infighting wildfires. Although some other countries in theWestern Hemisphere have made similar agreements with their neighbors, firemanagers are seeking a greater level of collaboration.
Scores of fires in the forest lands of Brazil and Bolivia appear in red on this satellite image taken October 7. (NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center)
“Adhoc collaboration in training, information sharing, and emergency support is nolonger sufficient,”said Mike Jurvelius, a wildland fire expert with theUnited Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “To properlyaddress the problem of forest fires, we need to establish networks, to developstrategies, and to facilitate exchange of personnel and equipment in the region.”
Thiswas the theme of the Pan-American Conference on Wildland Fire, held in Octoberin San José, Costa Rica Key personnel from all national forest agencies in thehemisphere attended the conference. According to the FAO, it was the firstmeeting of its kind
“Firemanagement today isn’t simply a technical matter of fire suppression,” saidUSDA Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth in his remarks at the conference. “Ourcommitment to sustainability has made fire management much more complex. Itinvolves all kinds of social and human dynamics as well as complex questionsabout the ecological role of fire. If we’re going to adequately address theseissues,then we’re going to need new and more effective kinds of internationalcooperation in fire management operations, policy, and research and development.”
DennyTruesdale, assistant to the deputy chief of the Forest Service’s Department ofState and Private Forestry, which includes the Fire and Aviation Management andCooperative Forestry divisions, said regional agreements would be beneficial forcountries in other parts of the hemisphere, especially for smaller countriesthat do not have extensive fire fighting resources.
“Theregional strategy and the idea of networks is to develop relationships andconnections between countries and to prepare them for working together beforethey need to cooperatively fight fires,” said Truesdale.
Sharingfire fighting resources such as trained firefighters and equipment is one goal,but Truesdale said access to satellite imagery and other technology and methodsof measuring and predicting fire behavior, such as the US National Fire DangerRating System, are also vital.
“Manycountries do not have the resources to establish the entire range of detectionand prevention facilities that we have in the United States and Canada-just asindividual states here wouldn’t,” said Truesdale. “Having some sort ofregional network would give them access to more of these resources.”
Establishingpersonal relationships between fire management agencies also is important, saidTruesdale. “Whether it’s as formalized as in the United States andCanada,where we meet once a year, or if it’s more informal, it’s important toknow who to call when an emergency comes and you need something at 2:00 in themorning.”
Withthree main languages spoken in the hemisphere-English, Portuguese, andSpanish-the language barrier can be a significant obstacle to cooperation.
“Ourability to work with Mexico in some cases is limited by us not having enoughhighly qualified firefighters and fire managers who speak Spanish-and who alsospeak fire fighting Spanish,” said Truesdale. “Instead of having ElSalvador or Guatemala calling the United States for assistance, it makes a lotmore sense for them to have a relationship already established with Mexico andto work with them.”
Forinformation on international fire management networks, see the website of theGlobal Fire Monitoring Center at www.fire.uni-freiburg.de.