With fires ravaging Mediterranean, UN agency urges preventive education programmes

30 July 2007

With record summer temperatures and hot dry winds turning parts of the Mediterranean into a tinder box, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for education programmes to reduce the risk of wildfires, up to 95 per cent of which are caused by people through arson and negligence.

With record summer temperatures and hot dry winds turning parts of the Mediterranean into a tinder box, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for education programmes to reduce the risk of wildfires, up to 95 per cent of which are caused by people through arson and negligence.

“While fire is an important and widely used tool in land management and maintaining ecological processes, wildfires destroy millions of hectares of forest and vegetation with a loss of human and animal lives causing immense economic and environmental damage,” the agency noted in its latest update on the situation.

In addition to increased temperatures, socio-economic development in the Mediterranean, like abandoning the countryside as people move into the cities, has led to a general decrease in grazing and in the collection of fuel wood and fodder resulting in a buildup of highly inflammable forest litter and shrubs, FAO added.

This leads to more intense and severe fires which are difficult to suppress. With fewer people living in the countryside, fires set for agricultural clearing are more likely to run out of control.

“Most countries have laws to prevent the setting of fires or to control the period during which fire may be used. Many have developed fire prevention programmes or plans, but few countries have the ability to enforce these legal provisions or the capacity to administer the programmes,” FAO Director of the Forest Resources Division Jose-Antonio Prado noted.

A key to successful prevention are fire education programmes involving public service campaigns, schools and community groups, the agency said, citing India as an example for its awareness-raising projects in communities, which has led to more involvement in prevention and suppression activities that are reported to have reduced fire outbreaks by as much as 90 per cent in some regions.

Fire-fighters are currently working round the clock to control blazes threatening people and vegetation on thousands of hectares in southern Italy, Greece, and other parts of the Mediterranean. About 50 000 fires sweep through as many as 1 million hectares of Mediterranean forest and other woodlands each year with 30,000 workers, and sometimes many more, mobilized to fight them, according to FAO.

In the Mediterranean, up to 95 percent of fires are caused by people. Arson and negligence, especially in the disposal of discarded cigarettes and the careless handling of barbecues and fires in camping sites, are the cause of many wildfires, the agency noted.

 

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