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Major environmental emergencies caused by wildfires continue to hit the headlines. Dry weather in Indonesia in August 1999 caused a resurgence of fires and threatened a new smog disaster. Different regions of the world have been affected by major forest fires linked to climate variability such as the 1997-1998 El Niño. In 1998, areas affected included Indonesia, parts of Latin America, Florida, Spain, Greece, Russia and elsewhere. UNEP and its partners have published a useful report on Wildland Fires and the Environment: a Global Synthesis (UNEP, 1999). The report summarizes for decision-makers the environmental and health risks from fires and the techniques available to monitor and hopefully reduce the impacts of fires in the future.
The Global Fire Monitoring Centre provides access to near-real-time reports on the status of forest and wildfires around the world,as well as international forest fire news, at http://www.uni-freiburg.de/fireglobe/
One example of major forest loss was the problem of forest fires in Indonesia, especially on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, during 1997-1998. The fires produced a choking haze which blanketed a large area of South East Asia, causing widespread health and environmental problems. In Kalimantan, on the Indonesian part of Borneo, after severe fire loses in 1997, fires raged from January to May 1998, when the rains returned. At one point, 808 fire sites were identified by satellite pictures. The area of forest destroyed in Kalimantan and Sumatra alone in 1997-1998 has been estimated as 456,000 hectares (45,600 square kilometres) (UNEP, 1999). The fires in the region in 1997 produced carbon dioxide emissions equal to the overall emissions of carbon dioxide from Europe for a year.
Almost all of Kutai National Park, the Wein River orang-utan sanctuary, and unique limestone forests in the north of Kalimantan were destroyed by fire. Kalimantan contains 14 percent of global biodiversity potential. According to WCMC, the fires in Indonesia threatened at least 19 protected areas, all internationally important, including a World Heritage site (Ujung Kulon in Java), Ramsar Wetland (Berbak in Sumatra) and Biosphere Reserve (Tanjung Puting in Kalimantan). The fauna of Indonesia is considered at particular risk from fire as the country is home to more than 100 threatened animal species including the highest number of threatened mammals and the second highest number of threatened birds of any country in the world. The region is also notable for the wide variety of its plant life and 500 tree species were considered under threat of extinction even before the current fire tragedy. Unique forest ecosystems such as heath forest and peat-swamp forest are particularly vulnerable to fire, which destroys their fragile soils.
Many of the fires in Indonesia were started for the purposes of shifting cultivation or conversion of forest to palm oil production. The November 1997 report of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (of which UNEP was a member) concluded that the fires "have turned out to be an environmental emergency of exceptional proportions", and warned of "a repetition of the present emergency" if current practices remained unchanged.
Forest fires were also major problem in 1998 in Brazil, where, by the end of March, fires had rapidly spread deep into the rainforest and over a million hectares of savannah woodland had burnt. Mexico suffered its worst drought in 70 years, allowing smoldering fires to burn about 3,000 square kilometres of land, and sending smoke across the southern United States. The Chimalpas forest with many rare species was particularly threatened by fires burning out of control.
Mr. Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), referred to the fires as possibly "the greatest ecological disaster of the decade." "The tragedy is that future generations, who have no say in current policy, will have to bear the costs, and nobody seems willing to safeguard their interests," he said. The UN Secretary-General named Mr. Töpfer to coordinate the response of the United Nations system to these environmental catastrophes.
UNEP. 1999. J.S. Levine, T. Bobbe, N. Ray, A. Singh and R.G. Witt. Wildland Fires and the Environment: a Global Synthesis. Environmental Information and Assessment Technical Report UNEP/DEIA&EW/TR.99-1. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya. Available from Dr. Ashbindu Singh, Regional Coordinator, DEIA&EW North America, EROS Data Center, Sioux Falls, SD 57198, USA, E-mail: email@example.com
(Other sources: UNEP Information Note 1997/31 of 28 October 1997, updated with UNEP News Releases of 19 February 1998, and 27 and 28 April 1998, news reports of 3 April and 21 May 1998, and IFFM, 1998)
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