With wildfires destroying more than 140,000 hectares of forest and farmland in Portugal since the beginning of the summer, the United Nations disaster reduction agency is calling on countries around the world to cooperate in enforcing basic measures to reduce the risks.
“Every country should follow basic rules of fire prevention and increase its expertise on fire management with its neighbours,” the Director of the Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), Salvano Briceño, said in a news release.
“The treatment of combustible material, proper training for safe use of fire for agricultural purposes and a better behaviour by the public to avoid triggering fires are some of the main rules. National platforms for disaster risk reduction have a role to play to make forest management one of their top priorities and to better prepare their populations to reduce risk and vulnerability to natural hazards,” he added.
The current fire situation in Portugal has been aggravated by the change in land use. The rural exodus has left a large area of land uncultivated, increasing the amount of combustible materials that can trigger big fires when droughts occur. Preventive measures include using such material for fuel.
Mr. Briceño also noted that the floods currently sweeping Switzerland and Central Europe were a reminder that “floods do not only happen in India or Sierra Leone,” and urged preventive steps here too, such as building houses in safe areas, allowing water to evacuate through the natural flow of rivers and controlling erosion to avoid mudslides.
“It is incredible that people in a country like Switzerland are dying because of floods,” he said, noting the severity and frequency of rains that Europe will face in the future due to global warming will be a constant challenge for governments. “We cannot be fatalistic about these phenomena. We cannot prevent flash floods and storms but we can reduce our vulnerability and learn to live with natural hazards.”
The Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GFMC), established in 1998 as Germany’s contribution to ISDR, has outlined a set of measures to reduce the number of wildland fires, including the use of the forest biomass for energy production.
“It offers an increasingly valuable opportunity, especially now when oil prices are soaring,” GFMC Director Johann Goldammer said. “Governments should pay more attention to these resources because it is a way to reduce the number of fires in many countries, while increasing the economic benefits to communities.”
He noted that what was happening in Portugal was a clear demonstration of the strong need for closer cooperation between countries on fire management. “More needs to be done to enhance regional cooperation and develop common standards on technologies and fire prevention procedures and languages,” he said.
The GFMC coordinates the ISDR Wildland Fire Advisory Group and the ISDR Global Wildland Fire Network. Other big partners in ISDR are the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which coordinate the challenge of reducing forest fires around the world, particularly in Asia where they have become a threat to development.