Forest fires

Posted: 7 May 2008

The many causes of forest degradation include overharvesting of industrial wood and fuelwood, overgrazing, insect pests and diseases, storms and air pollution. But in recent years forest fires have been the most visible cause of destruction.

Amazon burningBurning the Amazon.© Herbert Girardet/The Environmental Picture LibraryFires are a key driver of forest land use change. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study estimates that annually fires burn up to 500 million hectares of woodland, open forests, tropical and sub-tropical savannahs, 10-15 million hectares of boreal and temperate forest and 20-40 million hectares of tropical forests.

Yet, fire is a paradox as while it can cause extensive ecological, economic, and social damage it can also be extremely beneficial through nutrient recycling and regeneration. For example in boreal forests, fire is a natural part of the forest cycle with some tree species, notably Lodgepole Pine and Jack Pine being able to germinate only after they have been exposed to fire. In addition, burning quickly decomposes organic matter into mineral components that cause a spurt of plant growth, and can also reduce disease in the forest.

Nevertheless, forest fires in contrast have caused considerable environmental, health, economic and social damages in recent years and have been recognised as major cause of forest loss and degradation in some parts of the world. Furthermore, emissions from forest fires have also exacerbated global climate change.

  • In 1997-1998, millions of hectares of forests burned in Brazil, The Russian Federation, Indonesia, Greece and Florida Mexico and Central America and elsewhere.
  • The largest areas burned in 1997-1998 were in Brazil and Indonesia. Low rainfall in much of the Amazon attributed to the El Niño weather pattern contributed to a prolonged fire season (beyond the usual July to early October period) and unusually high number of fires. It is estimated that in 1997, over 2 million hectares of rainforest in Brazil burned.
  • Some Brazilian forests of particular ecological or cultural importance have suffered from recent fires. In March 1998, fires burned over 600,000 hectares or rainforest in Roraima, including parts of the Yanomami Indian reserve. In September 1998, raging fires destroyed a large area of Brasilia National Park - a sanctuary for rare species.
  • In Indonesia, the fires of 1997-1998 burned millions of hectares inSumatra and Kalimantan. One estimate is that about 10 million hectares (including savannah with grassland) were ravaged in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Reports of widespread fires in Sumatra reappeared in March 2000.
  • The fires were largely caused by an opening up of forest areas by plantation companies and a resulting influx of people. Poor land use planning, poor forest management by timber concessions, and badly-controlled burning for land all contributed to the disaster.
  • According to the Economy and Environment Program for SE Asia and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the total costs including the effects of smoke locally and regionally, exceed $4.4 billion in damages - more than the damages assessed for the Exxon Valdez oil spill and India's Bhopal chemical spill combined.
  • One of the most devastating outcomes of the fire was the destruction of the orangutan habitat. According to WWF, some 40 per cent of the 1997/98 Kalimantan fires occurred in areas with orangutan populations.
  • The World Bank recently warned the Indonesian Government that it will withdraw support for forestry protection projects unless concerted action is taken to prevent illegal logging. Maps developed by the Forestry Department show that Indonesia has been losing 1.5 million hectares of forest every year - much more than previously thought.

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