International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) 2


Fire Disasters and the
International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction

On 11 December 1987 at its 42nd session, the General Assembly of the United Nations designated the 1990’s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR)(Resolution 44/236 of 22 December 1989). The concept of this international programme was an initiative of the US Academy of Sciences in 1984. The basic idea behind this proclamation of the Decade was and still remains to be the unacceptable and rising levels of losses which disasters continue to incur on the one hand, and the existence, on the other hand, of a wealth of scientific and engineering know-how which could be effectively used to reduce losses resulting from disasters.

Objectives of the Decade

 The general objective of the Decade is

to reduce through concerted international actions, especially in developing countries, loss of life, property damage and economic disruption caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes, windstorms, tsunamis, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, wildfires and other calamities of natural origin such as grasshopper and locust infestations.

The following four goals represent the desired destinations which Decade efforts should lead to:

  1. improve the capacity of each country to mitigate the effects of natural disasters expeditiously and effectively, paying special attention to assisting developing countries in the assessment of disaster damage potential and in the establishment of early warning systems and disaster-resistant structures when and where needed;

  2. devise appropriate guidelines and strategies for applying existing scientific and technical knowledge, taking into account the cultural and economic diversity among nations;

  3. foster scientific and engineering endeavours aimed at closing critical gaps in knowledge in order to reduce loss of life and property;

  4. develop measures for the assessment, prediction, prevention and mitigation of natural disasters through programmes of technical assistance and technology transfer, demonstration projects, and education and training, tailored to specific disasters and locations, and to evaluate the effectiveness of those programmes.

Based on the above broadly defined goals, it was found necessary to focus on a number of specific areas of activities which would mark progress to be achieved at the end of the Decade period.

By the year 2000, all countries, as part of their plan to achieve sustainable development, should have in place:

  1. comprehensive national assessments of risks from natural hazards, with these assessments taken into account in development plans;

  2. mitigation plans at national and/or local levels, involving long-term prevention and preparedness and community awareness, and

  3. ready access to global, regional, national and local warning systems and broad dissemination of warnings.

To date, 120 national IDNDR Commitees and focal points have been established around the world in order to realize the Decade’s objectives. In addition a group of 25 scientific and technical experts selected on the basis of their personal capacities and qualifications and with due to regard to the diversity of disaster mitigation issues and geographical representation constitute the membership of the Scientific and Technical Committee of the IDNDR 1. Their functions include to develop programmes to be taken into account in bilateral and multilateral cooperation and to assess and evaluate the activities carried out in the Decade and to make recommendations on the overall programmmes in an annual report to the Secretary General.

1 One of the members of the International Ad Hoc Group of Experts was Phil Cheney, CSIRO Bushfire Research Unit, Canberra (Australia). He expressed his views in a publication on “Australia’s role in the IDNDR” (Resource and Environmental Studies No.4, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, 1991).


Wildfires – “Natural Disasters” ?

In the past years there have been various successful examples of how national governments were prepared and the international community responded to disaster management support, e.g. after earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods.

What about wildfires? Are there or have there been any “wildfire disasters”? If so, has any of the goals indicated above been achieved in the sector of wildfire-caused disasters?

In the context of IDNDR, wildfires clearly have been defined as potential natural disasters. However, a global survey carried out by IDNDR shows an interesting picture. Among the 93 nations which responded to an enquiry by IDNDR a total of 49 nations considered wildfires to be an important “Prevailing Hazard” in their country. The remainder of 44 countries did not mention wildfires to be an important natural disaster threat (Tab.1).


Tab.1. Extracts from the information provided in national reports to the IDNDR. One of the questions directed to the countries was on “Prevailing Hazards”. In the questionnaire the countries had to state whether wildfires were considered to be a prevailing hazard or not. The total number of responses was 93. Extracted from: WCNDR Information Paper No.2 (April-94) Countries considering wildfires to be a prevailing natural hazard Countries considering wildfires not to be a prevailing natural hazard Algeria
Burkina Faso
China, People’s Republic of
Dominican Republic
Guinée, Republic of
Papua New Guinea
Russian Federation
Union of Myanmar
United States of America
Western Samoa Austria
British Virgin Islands
Cook Island
Costa Rica
Korea, Republic of
New Zealand
Solomon Islands
South Africa
Sri Lanka
Trinidad und Tobago
United Kingdom


From another survey on damages caused by significant natural disasters the evaluation of wildfire-related economic and human losses were not clearly to be identified. In the preface to that survey it was defined that a “significant disaster” must meet one of the following criteria:

Damage:  >1% of total annual GNP

Number of affected people:  >1% of the total population

Number of deaths: > 100

It is clear that only a few wildfire disasters meet these criteria in order to be put into the category of “significant” disaster. However, a look to the forest fire statistics from the People’s Republic of China show that throughout the last 40 years more than 100 people annually died in forest fires on an area affected by fire of nearly one million ha per year (Tab.2).


Tab.2. The forest fire statistics from the People’s Republic of China for the years 1950-1990 reveal the high loss of human life due to severe wildfires (Source: Ministry of Forestry, Fire Prevention Office, Beijing).

Year Number of Fires Area Burned (x10,000 ha) Human Lives Lost Year Number of Fires Area Burned (x10,000 ha) Human Lives Lost 1950 n.a. 114.50 n.a. 1973 10,143 100.88 65 1951 5,100 225.54 51 1974 16,268 53.88 92 1952 n.a. 58.35 22 1975 13,013 94.08 67 1953 10,784 72.69 37 1976 10,328 194.33 196 1954 25,692 140.02 89 1977 17,290 257.90 133 1955 57,153 248.34 301 1978 11,859 49.30 67 1956 30,704 279.82 203 1979 25,480 99.84 154 1957 25,171 91.14 120 1980 17,608 39.65 95 1958 9,278 33.59 33 1981 12,678 40.96 70 1959 8,113 81.13 62 1982 13,453 33.68 99 1960 11,593 100.43 208 1983 12,300 17.43 111 1961 33,879 152.93 196 1984 12,100 14.18 63 1962 43,321 186.77 187 1985 8,753 13.95 44 1963 32,846 107.11 173 1986 25,851 27.95 237 1964 6,433 19.22 11 1987 12,022 115.26 226 1965 10,913 54.60 78 1988 9,300 6.28 75 1966 5,189 57.85 41 1989 9,747 4.82 55 1967 4,487 30.23 59 1990 5,628 1.44 20 1968 2,338 18.46 12

Long-Term Total and Average Data

1969 7,497 61.42 59




1970 6,569 76.15 79         1971 8,860 83.01 55 Average per Year 1950-90 15,951
(1953-90) 90.53
(1950-90) 104
(1951-90) 1972 16,411 184.64 187        

* 10,000 ha = 100 km2
n.a. = data not available


Wildfires at the UN World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction

A World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, which forms a part of a mid-term review of Decade activities, was held in Yokohama (Japan) between 23-27 May 1994. The conference was the first of its kind to be held on a global level it was expected to provide a platform for the exchange of experiences between Decade partners at national, regional, and international levels.

During the UN World Conference some technical posters were exhibited, e.g. on new systems on remote sensing of fires (by Finland and Germany). The conference also provided the floor for the public presentation of the film “The Fire Experiment” 2.

The ECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire brought the fire issue onto the table of policy makers by presenting a poster and discussing the fire issue in the Technical Committees.

2 The film “The Fire Experiment” is a one-hour film originally produced for the German TV Channel Two (ZDF) and the French-German TV Channel “Arte” and broadcasted on 20 December 1993. The film covers the preparation and execution of a fire experiment in the frame of the Fire Research Campaign Asia-North (FIRESCAN), carried out in July 1993 (see IFFN No.10, p.25-26), a brilliant report on the start of fruitful cooperation in forest fire research between East and West. The background and systematics of fire research are well translated for the general public. The English version of this film which was sponsored by UNESCO and the Foreign Office, Federal Republic of Germany, can be obtained on request from the film producer Schubert Film Production, Leopoldstr.79, D-80802 München (GERMANY), Fax ++49-89-341908 (price for a single copy: DM 198.00; for research institutions, universities, etc. DM 148.00; please request a copy compatible with your TV system, e.g. PAL or NTSC).


Proposal to the Annex of the Yokohama Strategy for a Safer World, submitted by the ECE/FAO/ILO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire

Outcome of the Conference

The Yokohama conference clearly recognized the still existing gaps between its vision – as formulated in the begin of the Decade – and reality. This reality is that the goals and targets are far from being achieved as one would expect after half of the Decade has passed by: many of the delegates of the 147 nations represented at the conference commented that 95% of the Decade’s work needs to be done in its second half. 

The conference unanimously accepted the declaration of the “Yokohama Strategy”. The 18-page document gives clear outlines and a plan of action although no specific disaster or action is mentioned in detail.

From the point of view of global cooperation in coping with wildfire-caused disasters, two of the recommended international activities, which were given in order to implement the IDNDR objectives, are of importance:

  • recognition of the need of adequate coordination of international disaster reduction activities and strengthening of the mechanisms established for this purpose. International coordination should relate, in particular, to the formation of development projects which provide assistance for disaster reduction and their evaluation;
  • effective coordination of international disaster management, in particular by the United Nations system, is paramount for an integrated approach to disaster reduction and should, therefore, be strengthened.

Detailed proposals of countries and organizations will be added to the strategy paper in the form of an Annex. As it had been decided at the Meeting of the ECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire in Geneva, April 1993, a proposal was directed to the conference and will be part of the Conference Annex (see next page):

With this proposal the ECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire intends to open a forum for discussion and further suggestions.


Johann G. Goldammer

Leader, ECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire



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