Reducing the Negative Impacts of Vegetation Fires on the Environment and Humanity

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Working Group on Fire

Objectives: Working together towards reducing the negative impacts of vegetation fires on the environment and humanity through effective strategies employed by civil society and international organizations


1. Rationale 

Over the past decade, many regions of the world have experienced a growing trend of excessive fire application in the forestry-agriculture interface, land-use systems and land-use change, and an increasing occurrence of extremely severe fires. Some of the fire effects are trans-boundary, for example smoke and water pollution and its impacts on lives, human health and safety, livelihoods, material possessions, loss of biodiversity or site degradation at a landscape level leading to desertification or flooding. The depletion of terrestrial carbon by fires burning under extreme conditions in some vegetation types, including organic terrain in peat land biomes, is one of the driving agents of disturbance of global biogeochemical cycles, notably the global carbon cycle. Observed and modelled consequences of regional climate change suggest an alteration of fire regimes with consequences on ecosystem degradation and depletion of terrestrial carbon.  Although this trend is revealed by a wealth of scientific knowledge on the cultural, social, economic and environmental dimension of fire in the Earth system, the gaps in fire management capabilities from local to global levels are evident.  The current situation and the expected trends are challenging the international community to address the problem collectively and collaboratively. 

2. Response by Civil Society and International Organizations 

In recognition of the significant impacts of vegetation fires on the global environment, on economies and society, and the role of natural and anthropogenic fire as an important factor in maintaining stability, biodiversity and functioning of some ecosystems, several international consultations during the 1990s, including the 2nd International Wildland Fire Conference (1997), recommended that a group and mechanisms be formally established under the auspices of the United Nations to facilitate international cooperation in addressing global fire needs.[1]  In 2001 a Working Group on Wildland Fire was established under the auspices of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Disaster Reduction, UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). The Working Group provided an international platform and forum with the overall aim of bringing together the technical members of the fire community and the authorities concerned with policies at national to international levels to realise their common interests in fire management at global scale. Among other activities the Working Group initiated the establishment of the UNISDR Global Wildland Fire Network (GWFN) under which Regional Wildland Fire Networks would play a key role in developing partnerships and cooperation in fire management between countries.  

Expert consultations and dedicated international conferences on forest fire policies management and research since the late 1990s examined action related to international collaboration, capacity building and human resource development; to review mechanisms to support cooperation in forest fire management at bilateral, regional and international levels; the establishment of inter-country agreements aimed at sharing resources, personnel and equipment; and to examine components of such inter-country agreements, including overall logistical, policy and operational level considerations.

In 2003 the International Wildland Fire Summit recommended principles and procedures for international cooperation in fire management. Furthermore, the summit recommended international dialogue through the Regional Wildland Fire Networks organized under GWFN and coordinated by the UNISDR Wildland Fire Advisory Group (WFAG).[3]  In May 2004 the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC), FAO, UNISDR and GOFC/GOLD (Global Observation of Forest and Land Cover Dynamics) drafted a paper “Framework for the Development of an International Wildland Fire Accord”. [4] 

Regional consultations in 2004 recommended the development of informal partnerships, joint projects and formal agreements between government and non-governmental institutions that were essential to enable nations to develop sustainable fire management capabilities. In 2004 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Wildland Fire Advisory Group / Global Wildland Fire Network proposed the development of an International Wildland Fire Accord to the FAO Ministerial Meeting on Forests and the 17th Session of the FAO Committee on Forestry, March 2005 (COFO 2005). Both the Ministerial Meeting and COFO 2005 called upon FAO, in collaboration with countries and other international partners, including the UNISDR, to develop a strategy to enhance international cooperation on wildland fires, that advances knowledge, increases access to information and resources and explores new approaches for cooperation at all levels, and to develop voluntary guidelines on the prevention, suppression and recovery from forest fire. [5] 

In response, FAO convened a technical core group of international fire specialists in March 2006 and held an international expert consultation in Madrid in May 2006 to consider drafts of the Strategy to Enhance International Cooperation in Fire Management and the Voluntary Guidelines. The international experts agreed upon a framework outlined in Figure 1. 

The Strategy to Enhance International Cooperation in Fire Management is built upon four pillars:

  • Principles and Strategic Actions as detailed in the Voluntary Guidelines

  • Implementation Partnership (Fire Management Actions Alliance)

  • Global Assessment of Fire Management

  • Review of International Cooperation

This summary paper of the Working Group on Fire provides the main elements of the review (Pillar 4), which had been developed by the GFMC in cooperation with UNISDR-WFAG / GWFN in response to the Global Assessment of Fire Management 2006 (Pillar 3) and the principles and recommendations included in the Fire Management Voluntary Guidelines (Pillar 1). 

Text Box: Strategy to Enhance International Cooperation in Fire Management
The overarching framework in response to the Ministerial Meeting and COFO requests 
Text Box: Implementation Partnership
Partnership to implement the principles and strategic actions
Text Box: Report of the Expert Consultation on Wildland Fires, May 2006
Text Box: A Working Paper on Legal Frameworks, International Agreements and National Legislation in Fire Management
Text Box: Review of International Cooperation 2006
Review and analysis of international agreements, arrangements and institutions in fire management at the international level
Text Box: Fire Management Actions Alliances, launched in May 2007
Text Box: Global Assessment 2006
Review and analysis of fire management, incidence and impact in all regions, with global analysis
Text Box: 12 Regional Working Papers prepared by UNISDR Regional Wildland Fire Network issued
Text Box: Principles and Strategic Actions
Voluntary Guidelines developed with multiple stakeholders in response to 17th Session COFO, 2005. Supports above Strategy.












 Figure 1. The Components of the Strategy to Enhance International Cooperation in Fire Management

3. Definition of Principles and Priorities for Action

These references highlight a lack of capacity in integrated fire management in many countries around the world – both in human and technical resources.

Action is needed at local, sub-national, national and regional levels. Priority for action aimed at enhancing fire management capabilities are put opposite

the fire management principles of the Fire Management Voluntary Guidelines (Table 1).

 Table 1. Principles with derived implications for priority action.


Principles: Voluntary Guidelines - Relevant at all levels

Implications for International Cooperation:

Priorities for Action

Appropriate use and management of fire will promote sustainable livelihoods; the traditional use of fire on the lands of indigenous peoples and traditional rural communities should remain as a practice for those communities and adapted to the current environment

Promotion of, and capacity building in, the use of traditional and advanced methods of prescribed burning for sustainable silviculture, agriculture, and flora and fauna management, including fuel management and restoration of fire regimes.

Human health and security will be improved by minimizing the adverse effects of fire

Promotion of, and capacity building in, firefighter and public safety; development and / or use of early warning systems by and for communities to reduce the health and security impacts of fires; conducting community based fire risk minimization activities during all stages of fire management activity (pre-fire, during fire events and post-fire).

The destructive impacts of unplanned fires on livelihoods, property, and resources must be minimized.

Promotion of, and capacity building in, minimizing risk through fire knowledge, training, participatory planning and preparation, and appropriate suppression systems.

An effective and efficient fire management programme requires a balance between the benefits society receives from the use of fire and the costs, damages, or undesirable impacts caused by unwanted fire.

Development of methodologies and standards to assess (a) benefits, costs, and economic outputs from the use of fire for resource management and the public good; (b) fire damages including effects to non-economic or non-commodity values; and (c) benefits of mitigation of the unwanted effects or damages to lands and resources. Development and use of early warning systems to provide seasonal severity predictions and inform citizens on mitigation measures and assist in the assessment of fire risk.

The interactions of climate change with vegetation cover and fire regimes should be understood and appropriately considered in the planning process and implementation of fire use.

Promotion of, and capacity building in, integrated approaches of strategic fire management planning that include the interactions between climate change and fire regimes, particularly the preparation of long-term fire management plans, land-use plans, silvicultural planning and management plans of protected areas that take into account attributes of climate change, i.e. increasing occurrence and impacts of climate extremes (droughts, hurricanes, floods) on potential behaviour and severity of fire, fuel dynamics, and shifting of vegetation zones; utilizing hazardous fuels for energy production with the dual goal of reducing wildfire hazard and consumption of fossil fuels; and maximizing the storage of carbon in ecosystems – especially in restoration of degraded ecosystems – without increasing the wildfire risk.

Fire should be managed in an environmentally responsible manner to assure properly functioning and sustainable ecosystems into the future.

Knowledge transfer and capacity building in fire ecology and derived fire management practices, post-fire rehabilitation and management of invasive species.

All fire management activities should be based on a legal framework and supported by clear policy and procedures

Promotion of and capacity building in enacting legislation and regulation at the appropriate jurisdictional levels, e.g. for achieving goals ranging from those set by local communities to internationally agreed principles such as the Millennium Development Goals, notably those of eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, ensuring environmental sustainability, and development of a Global Partnership for Development.

Successful fire management requires participatory approaches for leadership and management appropriately shared between public and private landholders, the fire services, and communities of interest.

Promotion of and capacity building in integrated planning approaches aiming at minimizing land tenure and boundary issues, involvement of community members at the local, regional, state, national and international level, by assuring that processes are open and accessible to people of different backgrounds and cultures (especially indigenous communities).

Few nations and no single agency or community have the ability to manage every situation, and as fires routinely affect multiple jurisdictions, agencies should develop cooperative arrangements to mitigate the multi-jurisdictional impacts.

Development and promotion of the use of common terminology, systems, and standards to enhance international cooperation; promotion of exchange of knowledge, technology and resources in order to facilitate rapid international response to fires; participation in international organizations, networks, fora, and activities to increase the domestic agencies’ capacity to manage fire; and use of available guidelines and examples of successfully implemented agreements as a framework will facilitate the development of binding and non-binding international instruments.

Access to, and the appropriate transfer of, knowledge is essential for all fire management activities.

Promotion of and capacity building in high-quality scientific research and confirming the utility of practical knowledge is necessary for the creation of policies, regulations, guidelines and practices; use of science and technology transfer in local fire activities including community-based approaches.

 Priorities for internationally coordinated action as recommended in the Global Assessment of Fire Management, by international conferences and international organizations are summarized in Table 2.

 Table 2. Priorities for action, as recommended in the Global Fire Assessment, and from international conferences and organizations[6].


International Priorities

Implications for Action

Harmonization of terminology and definitions will result in clear and better understanding

Development of a multilingual fire management terminology

Global fire monitoring, assessment and reporting standards, procedures for data collection and fire database management is essential to provide a full picture on the occurrence and impacts of vegetation fires, including changes of fire regimes as a consequence of global change.

Development of internationally agreed standards for fire monitoring, assessment and reporting of vegetation fires.

Operational global fire early warning, detection and surveillance system

Development of operational fire early warning and risk assessment systems (local to global) for decision support in fire management; development of a coordinated satellite-based system for operational detection and monitoring (surveillance) of fires.

International fire disaster assistance

Enhancement and improvement of existing mechanisms of fire disaster support at international level under an internationally agreed jurisdictional / legal framework; provision of appropriate funding, and human and technical resources.

Bilateral, Multilateral and international cooperation: Networking and agreements

Development (where not yet in place) of agreements to enhance international cooperation in fire management (capacity building, sharing of fire management resources, development and joint implementation of policies addressing transnational issues of fire management.

International cooperation in fire research

Development / enhancement of cooperative research projects and programmes with a focus the human and environmental implications of global change and changing fire regimes.

International donor support

Creation of mechanisms for funding, e.g. an international partnership or a “Fire Management Programme Facility” which would correspond to the National Forest Programme Facility

Technical Support to Fire Management

Regular evaluation of in-country capabilities in fire management in order to define gap-stop measures to improve political, policy and public awareness building, and to develop:

-     Community-based fire management

-     Fire management planning, institutional jurisdictions in integrated approaches in the rural-urban and forestry-agriculture interfaces

-     Strengthening knowledge creation and sharing

-     Greater commitments to education and training a local, sub-national, national and regional levels and international fora, seminars, conferences, workshops, study tours to share knowledge

-     Strengthening UNISDR Regional Wildland Fire Networks

 4. Goals of International Cooperation in Fire Management

 The goals to enhance international cooperation in fire management are to:

    -   Adopt a common language and common principles in fire management as a basis for international, inter-cultural and multilingual cooperation

-   Better understand the issues related to fires, their underlying causes and environmental and humanitarian impacts

-   Create synergies by increasing collaboration by actors and coordinating individual actions

-   Achieve greater integration of policies, plans, management and monitoring between sectors

-   Develop policy and fire management support systems that are of global / international nature

-   Implement relevant international agreements, conventions, declarations, processes and voluntary agreements into regional, national and local policies and actions

-   Create a framework and mechanisms of international donor support for fire management stakeholders in need.

 Enhancing international cooperation can assist the international, regional, national and local communities to:

    -   Improve and make available knowledge, information and data on the extent and impacts of fire on a range of forest and non-forest ecosystems (to serve as a basis for decision making in fire management) and on the atmosphere and global climate

-   Increase efficiency of fire management (land use and fire use, prediction, prevention, preparedness, rapid response to control of wildfires and mitigation and restoration / rehabilitation following fires)

-   Ensure capacity building in fire management

-   Develop cross-sectoral policies, notably with the land-use domain (agriculture, pastoralism), nature conservation, environmental management, climate change mitigation, etc.

 5. Priority Themes for International Cooperation in Fire Management

The priority themes to enhance international cooperation in fire management are clustered in four broad areas:

1.    Development of international standards, methods and systems for fire early warning, monitoring, impact assessment and reporting

-       Terminology

-       Fire statistics: Development of a coherent global database

-       Fire monitoring

-       Early warning

-       International sharing of data and information

2.    Training and technology transfer

-       Training of fire management personnel

-       Public / community involvement in fire management

-       Fire management guidelines

3.    Support to policy, legal, institutional and planning frameworks

-       Policies, legislation and strategies: National and regional

-       Human safety and health

-       Human security and peace

-       International agreements for cooperation in fire management, including mutual assistance in fire emergencies

4.    Research


 Figure 2. International sharing of fire data and information will involve cross-sectoral participation of global to local actors with responsibilities ranging from scientific and technical analysis to land users and fire management actors on the ground, i.e. the local communities.

 6. Conclusions

The strategic review and assessment of the role of international partners in international cooperation in fire management, developed by members of the Working Group on Fire, concentrated on themes and fields that require a cooperative and collective approach. The availability of finances for the implementation of the strategic actions and for coordinated action suggested in this review, however, are crucial for the overall success of international cooperation. An active follow up of this assessment through the UNISDR Wildland Fire Advisory Group, the Global Wildland Fire Network and the Fire Management Actions Alliance will be crucial for the success of coordinated and collective international action. It is strongly assumed that nations (governments), international organizations and civil society (non-government organizations), notably those participating in the UNISDR Regional Wildland Fire Networks, will be interested and available to serve as partners.