PyroLife International Symposium: Towards an Integrated Fire Management
Highlights from the third PyroLife Symposium webinar on June 17, 2020 by Kerryn Little.
Dr Peter Moore of the forest fire management and disaster risk reduction sector of the FAO, a partner organisation of PyroLife, reflects on global data in living with fire and his own experiences with the FAO in community wildfire management in developing countries. Peter thoughtfully addresses a number of key issues that align closely to the values of PyroLife and leaves us with many words of wisdom to reflect on moving forwards.
In 2019, it appeared the world was on fire. High-profile fires, amongst countless no-profile fires, in regions including the Arctic Circle, Amazon, Indonesia and Australia dominated headlines and the political agenda, right up until COVID-19. This highlights a common phenomenon in fire, where these events are quickly forgotten when something else comes along—An important issue to address to ensure lessons from these events translate into constructive action.
“Almost without exception, high-profile fires are in the developed world”…But where do fires burn?
More than two-thirds of the world’s burned area from 2001–2018 is in Africa. Sub-regions Eastern and Southern Africa, Western and Central Africa, Northern Africa, Oceania and South America each exceed 500 million ha burned in the period 2001–2018. Meanwhile, North America, one of the continents we hear the most about, makes up just 120 million ha.
Key to understanding these numbers, is the idea that burned area is not equal to damage and loss. Peter notes that the sub-regions with the highest burned areas are themselves made up of extensive areas of less developed savanna and grassland—areas that burn cyclically and where fire is an ecological influence.
Peter also highlights the importance of understanding the spatial and temporal dimensions of global wildfire patterns. Anthropogenic impacts are critical factors in determining global fire patterns, through land use change, altering ignition patterns and suppressing fires. Interestingly, global burned area is decreasing over time, yet the profile of fires is increasing.
Unfortunately, a lack of reliable data for fire occurrence makes it difficult to meaningfully interpret global fire patterns. A thematic study on fire incidence by the FAO found that overall 175 of 229 reports submitted by countries and territories had weak or no data on fire incidence or land area burned. Consistent and reliable fire occurrence data as well as research to understand how and why fire is used are desperately needed. As a starting point, available monitoring systems of burned area could be utilised and interpreted with stakeholders for country-level validation.
“There is a critical requirement to enhance transfer of skill, knowledge, ideas, know-how and technology from developed to developing countries”
Peter also thoughtfully shares his experiences working with local community forest groups in western Zimbabwe and Tanzania, highlighting some key differences for fire management in developing countries. Everyone in the community is involved in this process, including women, children and elderly. However, these groups have virtually no equipment and very few resources for forest and fire management, such as infrastructure, tools, water and government engagement. They are also subject to critical limitations in accessibility, including access to education and systems like electricity, communications and processes. Access to time is a further limitation, where the timing of seasonal activities is crucial, and communities spend 1–3 months per year food insecure. Community politics and power structures are also characteristic limitations, but Peter notes this is an issue common to both developing and developed countries.
“Community politics and power structures are everywhere—don’t ever think that they don’t exist, and don’t ever stop looking for them”
These examples highlight significant disparities and challenges for all involved in fire management; however, for people working in developing country contexts, and more generally, as people involved in fire management with capacity and resources, there is a lot we can do to help. We can start by utilising the skills and capacities we have in developed countries to help collate and analyse data until necessary systems are established. We can present the information but not interpret it—unless you have spent a lot of time in the country, you will not (and should not try to) understand the context that is needed for interpretation.
“I know enough to know what it is I don’t know, and I would urge you to adopt that frame of thinking”
What we can do, is begin the process so that we can start discussions and exchanges. We should do this by really listening and observing how communities and people live with and understand fire, a valuable skill that we need to relearn and connect with. We then need to share these interpretations and iteratively develop exchanges towards conclusions, which is a continuous process.
Peter concludes by acknowledging Black Lives Matter and the movement to defund the police force and redirect this money—It is suggested that 95% of arrests are for things that do not threaten public safety. He asks us to consider the parallels in relation to fire management—How about defunding fire suppression?
If we were to divert the massive amount of funding for fire suppression to investment in diversity, equal access to data, information, discussions, ideas and options for improvement, then perhaps we can shift the funding to where it will reduce the most risk?