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Governments must act ahead of time to contain wildfires

Rather than only reacting to forest fires, more should be done to prevent them in the first place

By Peter Moore, Fire Management Specialist, and Amy Duchelle, Senior Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Extreme wildfires are set to become around 50 percent more frequent by the end of the century, a landmark UN report warned this month. But governments can do a lot to contain the damage.

Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Fires, the February 23 report by the UN Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal, mostly blamed climate change and changes in land use for the increasing frequency and intensity of uncontrolled forest fires. 

Tackling this global wildfire crisis is more urgent than ever. 

Globally, over 370 million hectares of land burn every year, releasing 1.9 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. While wildfires in forests only account for 5 percent of the Earth’s burned area, they contribute to more than 80 percent of these emissions.

And yet, most governments are focusing on the wrong priorities, concentrating resources on putting out fires once they have already started, rather than on trying to make sure they don’t happen in the first place. It should be the opposite. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has developed an integrated fire management approach that helps governments better understand the causes and factors driving wildfires, based on the 5Rs: review and analysis, risk reduction, readiness, response and recovery.

This approach creates the knowledge for a shift in focus from solely emergency responses to sustainable forest and land management practices that reduce risk, enhance readiness and facilitate recovery. 

Some countries are already leading the way in applying the 5Rs. The key is making sure that all fire related activities are coherently integrated into national policies, planning and implementation and that the balance between them is appropriate and effective.

For example, Portugal, scarred by the tragic fires of 2017 which killed 117 people and burned more than 540,000 hectares of land, adopted a 10-year plan that aims to protect the country from severe rural fires while ensuring that ecosystems are properly tended and sustained. 

Meanwhile, in Timor-Leste, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries embarked on a thorough review of its fire prevention and management policies, with technical assistance from FAO, to pave the ground for a root-and-branch rethink of its approach. 

Extreme wildfires are devastating for the environment and for people, and almost impossible to control once they begin. But if we listen to the experts, we can do a lot to prevent them, saving countless lives and natural resources. 

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