Start fighting next year’s fires now, World Conservation Union urges

Start fighting next year’s fires now, World Conservation Union urges

3 September 2007

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Europe — After the devastating forest fires in Greece, and as Algeria continues to struggle with more than 60 fresh wildfires, the World Conservation Union has set up a task force to support post-fire restoration in the region.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, the Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), has expressed her deepest sympathy for the loss of life and property caused by this summer’s outbreak of forest wildfires to the Mediterranean and Balkan governments. She has also established a task force to support affected countries in post-fire restoration activities.

In the meantime, IUCN is urging governments and the European Union not to lose sight of the fact that although fires are a natural part of the Mediterranean ecosystem, they will continue to be a perennial threat to people and their homes until more comprehensive approaches to fire management are put in place. Critically, this means balancing efforts between fighting and controlling fires when they occur with addressing the known underlying causes of the fires.

Bill Jackson, Director of IUCN’s Global Programme, said: “It is understandable that there is a lot of discussion in Europe on establishing a dedicated EU water bomber squadron. While more capacity is always useful during an emergency, it will not by itself solve the problem of Mediterranean wildfires.

“It has been known for some time that Greece, despite having the biggest fleet of water bombers in any southern European country, will continue to face these crises year after year until legal and institutional issues pertaining to land development, changes in rural demographics and the collapse of traditional farming practices are addressed.”

Over the past 15 years, IUCN and many other organizations have been pointing out that natural patterns of forest fires in the Mediterranean have been changing dramatically. This has led to speculation that global warming is the primary reason why many of these forests are now burning more frequently and more intensely. This is not the case.

Stewart Maginnis, Head of IUCN’s Forest Conservation Programme, said: “Although some commentators assume a direct link between climate change and the increased occurrence of wildfires, there is very little scientific evidence to substantiate this. The basic facts remain the same; unwanted and uncontrolled fires are an indication of unsound and unsustainable land-use and fire management policies and practices.”

While some of the underlying causes of Mediterranean wildfires will take time to address, there is also immediate action that can be taken. Post-fire restoration can either store up problems for the years ahead or lessen the likelihood of another serious wildfire in the foreseeable future. 

Lessons learnt from a number of countries indicate that good recovery and reduced future fire risk will be all the more likely if actions are taken looking at the whole landscape, while also involving local communities in decisions. Equally, guarding against the inadvertent introduction of invasive species into a recovering area can greatly increase the risk of severe fires in the future.

IUCN will work with its government and NGO members to support the assessment of the environmental impact of this year’s fires. It will help in the design and implementation of post-fire restoration strategies aimed at regaining the benefits provided to people by nature and reducing the risk of harmful fires while simultaneously facing up to the larger policy, legal and institutional challenges over the long term.

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