With wildfires worldwide affecting an area larger than India each year, and up to 95 per cent of them caused by humans, it is essential that local communities be mobilized to control the scourge, according to a United Nations handbook released today.
The risk, frequency, intensity and impacts of wildfires can be reduced through more integrated approaches to fire management, including fire detection and suppression but also monitoring, early warning, prevention and preparedness, says a new version of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Wildland Fire Management Handbook for Trainers, co-published by the agency and the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“When local communities benefit from protecting their natural resources they are more likely to be mobilized to prevent fires,” FAO Forestry Officer Pieter van Lierop said, noting that where people have a direct interest in protecting their natural resources, the number and size of unplanned wildfires started by them are likely to drop significantly.
“There should be the right balance between activities involving suppressing fires and investing in costly forest-fire equipment on one hand, and establishing effective prevention and awareness-raising among local communities on the other,” he added.
Globally, more than 350 million hectares, or 3,500,000 square kilometres, are estimated to be affected by vegetation fires each year, with about half or more of this area in Africa. By comparison the area of India totals 3,287,590 square kilometres.
An estimated 150 to 250 million hectares of tropical forests, and 700,000 to 1 million hectares in the Mediterranean area suffer from fires every year. Ninety to 95 per cent of all such fires have a human cause, FAO said.
The expansion of agriculture and other forms of land conversion in developing countries, negligence, increased use of wild lands for recreation, such as picnics and barbecues, and tourism in both developed and developing countries are among the causes for the increasing incidence and impacts of fires, many them intentionally set to clear land for agriculture but often burning much larger areas than originally intended.
Simply banning burning is not a practical solution. “People will light fires anyway, even if it is legally banned, in order to clear land or to dispose of rubbish,” Mr. van Lierop said. “So it is more beneficial to train local communities in fire management and to develop alternative less harmful solutions with them. Burning land at the end of winter, for example, will lower the risk of bigger devastating fires.”
Fire, while very destructive, can at the same time be a very useful land management tool if carefully timed and used. It is important that planned burning in ecosystems take place to maintain biodiversity, ensure regeneration, and forage production, FAO said.
For instance, in Southern Africa controlled burning of savanna provides edible forage for animals and reduces the fire risk by reducing the accumulation of dry and inedible older grasses. In grassland ecosystems, fire is the primary mode of decomposition, crucial for returning nitrites to the soil and allowing the grasslands to sustain their high productivity.
Successful fire management requires training of local communities to improve their knowledge of the impact of fire on food security and rural livelihoods. Land-use authorities and managers around the world need to be educated in ecological fire management. Creating special forest fire control units in each country is another important step to monitor and prevent disastrous forest fires.
In Thailand, massive education and training programmes involving foresters and the general public have resulted in a reduction of indiscriminate burning by 30 per cent, the handbook says. “Developing countries should look into such positive practices and put more efforts into community-based fire management education and prevention of fires,” Mr. van Lierop added.