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Forest fires: a complex issue necessitating international cooperation

Published: 05 September 2003

Forest fires across Europe, North America and the Russian Federation this summer have attracted public attention due to the number of victims, the intensity of the fires, the areas devastated, the environmental damage and the loss of property. Fire risk has attained unusually high levels as a direct consequence of this summer’s extreme weather conditions: heat and drought over long periods. Ecological damage (erosion, etc) has also been severe.

It is still too early to analyse in depth the damage of the 2003 fire season. However, in some European countries the area of fires is already much higher than the average area recorded during the last decade. In Europe, some relevant data, as yet approximate and not validated, are set out below.



2003, January to date
(estimates) - ha

2002, whole year

1980-2002 average



417 000

123 910

93 981



54 000

20 850

29 711



99 863

86 426

191 400



58 902

40 768

121 982

In North America, information to date is as follows:


North America

2003, January to date

2002, whole year



1 510 364

2 657 040


United States

2 888 738

1 706 514

In the Russian Federation large fires have swept the southern and eastern regions of the country causing major damage. The area burned at the end of August 2003 is already twice as high as the total area burned in 2002. Over 80,000 ha have been burnt in Kazakhstan.



2003, January to date

Total 2002


Russian Federation

23 710 000

11 700 000


The causes of the fires, and of the damage they cause, vary widely and are both social and ecological in nature. Prevention and control strategies address public awareness, repression of crime, silvicultural cleaning measures to reduce the fuel load, and economic incentives for appropriate management measures, as well as effective fire suppression. In all cases, hot and dry weather conditions can make the severity of fires much worse. The existence of habitations in endangered areas complicates the task of fire fighters and increases damage to property. In all cases, political will over long periods is necessary to make long term improvements.

Prevention and fire control measures in all countries during the past decades have significantly contributed to reduce fire damage. However, under exceptional weather conditions as is the case this year, although national fire-fighting services have accomplished the outmost at the risk of their lives, damage is significantly greater.

There is still scope for increased international cooperation, which has developed strongly over recent years. This involves not only exchange of personnel and equipment (for instance several southern hemisphere fire teams have been helping in North America this year, and extra fire suppression planes and helicopters have been brought to the Mediterranean region), but also exchange of experience, to improve tactics, strategy and policy.

For instance:

The FAO/ECE/ILO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire, Silva Mediterranea , the Government of Spain and the Centre International de Hautes Etudes Agronomiques Méditerranéennes (CIHEAM) organized a workshop on Multilateral Assistance against Forest Fires in Zaragoza, Spain in June 2003, with the aim of developing new procedures to facilitate border crossing in fire emergencies. Because of the workshop deliberations and recommendations the government of Spain was better able to assist both Portugal and France in combating fires in July-August 2003.

The third International Wildland Fire Conference and the first International Wildland Fire Summit, in Sydney, Australia in October this year will address issues such as Developing Global/Regional Fire Capacity, International Fire Support Arrangements-Needs and Solutions and Climate Change.

The FAO/ECE/ILO Committee on Forest Technology, Management and Training will hold a Conference on Forest Fire Management and International Cooperation in Fire Emergencies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and adjoining Regions of the Near East and Central Asia, in Turkey from 29 March to 3 April 2004. A multinational fire-fighting exercise with ground and aerial fire fighting forces of two or more countries will be held at the same occasion.

ECE/FAO, with its partners, services the Joint FAO/ECE/ILO Committee and its team of specialists on forest fire, which also contributes to the International Strategy on Disaster Reduction, as well as collecting regular statistics. ECE/FAO publishes twice a year, International Forest Fire News (IFFN) which is intended to enhance the exchange of information on wildland fire management and related sciences. IFFN is an activity of the team of specialists and of the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC). Copies may be obtained on request from the secretariat.

For more information, visit the following web sites:

- Global Fire Monitoring Center (with near real time information on major fires, including information on international agreements and procedures for cooperation in fire management emergencies): http://www.fire.uni-freiburg.de/

- ECE/FAO International Forest Fire News (IFFN): # International Forest Fire News

- Timber Committee web site (statistics): http://www.unece.org/trade/timber/ff-stats.html

- FAO/ECE/ILO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire:

- FAO (global picture, international background):

- Third International Wildland Fire Conference, in Sydney, Australia:

- International Wildland Fire Summit, in Sydney, Australia:

- FAO/ECE/ILO Conference on Forest Fire Management and International Cooperation in Fire Emergencies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and adjoining Regions: http://www.unece.org/trade/timber/docs/jc-sem/sem-55/sem-55.htm

Further information may be obtained by contacting

Jorge Najera

Timber Branch
UNECE Trade Development and Timber Division
Palais des Nations
CH - 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0) 22 917 3240
Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 0041
E-mail: Jorge.Najera@unece.org

Ref: ECE/TIM/03/N01

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