Finns offer to help Turkey in combating forest fires

Finns offer to help Turkey in combating forest fires

06 June 2010

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Turkey — Finnish officials have offered to help Turkey tackle forest fires, a perennial scourge that run the risk of ravaging the country’s forestland in the upcoming peak high-risk fire season.

“We are ready to share our expertise with Turkish officials on how to reduce the risk of fires and how to respond swiftly when a fire happens,” Heikki Granholm, a counselor at the Finnish Agricultural and Forestry Ministry, told Today’s Zaman.

“We have developed a number of best practices in the prevention of forest fires by building numerous roads into forestland and increasing public awareness on the risks,” he said, adding that vigilance and observation were key to preventing the rapid escalation of fires in Finland. Granholm said a delegation from the Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry was coming to Helsinki next week to have talks with Finnish officials.

Finland, a country with three-quarters of its land forested, has its own share of fires in the summer but the damage is much more limited compared to Turkey, which topped the list of fire damage in Europe in 2008, during which a total of 29,749 hectares of forest were burned in 2,135 fires. Thanks to a rapid action plan adopted by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the following year saw far less forestland vanish due to fires.

According to a report issued by the ministry in April 2010, the number of fires in 2009 was 1,793 and the forestland burned dropped to 4,679 hectares, considerably less than in 2008. The aggressive policy adopted by the government targeted the root causes of forest fires, building more than 700 watchtowers and establishing 24-hour surveillance teams. The ministry also introduced a vehicle tracking system to keep tabs on all of its heavy equipment, helicopters and planes in order to swiftly channel them to needed spots in case of fires.

According to ministry officials, the efforts made by the 11,000 firefighters, 2,500 forestry engineers and 5,000 other workers in the field have produced encouraging results. The ministry has 45 firefighting airplanes and helicopters currently in use. In an effort to discover forest fires early and prevent their spread, 54 cameras have been installed in high-risk areas throughout the country in addition to a satellite monitoring system. Every 15 minutes high-risk regions are reviewed, with firefighting authorities receiving updates.

Yet the danger remains, as citizens’ awareness on preventing forest fires is something that the government needs to work on. The deliberate starting of forest fires by contractors and seasonal forestry workers in order to generate job potential, slash-and-burn tactics to open the land for agricultural use and accidental picnic fires still pose a major problem for Turkey.

Jari Parviainen, the director of the Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla) in Joensuu, said Turkey can benefit from Finland’s experience in fire prevention, whether for man-made or natural wildfires. He told Today’s Zaman that there is much contrast between Turkey and Finland — the latter is blessed with mosaic-like landscape with lakes, rivers, wetlands and barren mountaintops in the forest matrix, which in effect hinders the spread of fires. “Nevertheless, we have built quite an extensive network of roads to swiftly deploy firefighters to extinguish fires,” he told Today’s Zaman.

According to the latest European Union Commission report on forest fires, the number of wildfires in Finland last year was 3,161, of which 1,415 were reported as forest fires. The damage to the forests, however, was far less compared to Turkey. The total burned area was 1,175 hectares, of which only 824 hectares was forestland. Though the most common reason for wildfires is related to human activity, in most cases the fires are not started deliberately. In Finland, only a very small number of fires are caused by arson.

The Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry has changed its forest fire fighting strategy in recent years, focusing especially on the prevention side through education and awareness raising, as most fires in Turkey are started by humans, whether deliberately or accidentally. It also tries to boost the early warning and fast suppression tools available to firefighters across the country.

The General Directorate of Forestry, an agency within the ministry charged to monitor forests and prevent fires in Turkey, is testing automatic fire detection systems to handle fires quickly. For this reason, it contracted the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) and Bilkent University in Ankara to set up five test fire towers in each of two forest districts, Antalya and Muğla, where the fire risk is quite high during the long hot summer season. The government is also working on a rapid reforestation campaign to replenish the forestland lost due to fires.

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