UN report says mega-fires contributing to global warming

By Correspondent Chinyere Ogbonna – A new United Nations report says that the growing number of mega-fires around the world may be contributing to global warming.

It therefore calls on governments globally to introduce comprehensive strategies to reduce the risk of such conflagrations.

The report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), released just at an international conference in South Africa, urged policy-makers to improve their monitoring of carbon gas emissions from wildfires to better determine the potential climate change impacts.

The report’s release follows a series of high-profile mega-fires, including the February 2009 Black Saturday blazes in Australia that killed one hundred and seventy-three (173 ) people and obliterated many towns, and record-setting fires last year in Russia that claimed the lives of sixty-two people and burned about two point three million hectares of land.

The report examined recent mega-fires in Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Greece, Russia and the United States.

A forestry officer with FAO, Mr. Pieter van Lierop, said today that the problem was becoming more urgent as the frequency and size of mega-fires increase and weather projections indicate hotter and drier fire seasons.

“Mega-fires are mainly caused by humans and are likely exacerbated by climate change, but now we suspect they may also in themselves represent a vicious circle that is speeding up global warming.”

The report found that nearly all the mega-fires studied were started by people, sometimes deliberately to clear land for the purposes of agriculture or development.

In all but one of the examples studied, drought was a factor that prolonged or exacerbated the blazes, with hot, dry and windy conditions also contributing to the intensity of the fires.

But the report noted two examples – one in south-western Australia and one in Florida in the US – where despite all the conditions being in place for the uncontrolled spread of a mega-fire, relatively little damage was done.

The report’s authors cited more balanced approaches by authorities in those areas that featured prevention, mitigation and suppression strategies to minimize the impact of fires.

Meanwhile, in a message to the conference, UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon said recent fires and other disasters around the world “have made clear how vulnerable our cities and communities are and how much more effort is required to reduce our vulnerability.”

In the message, delivered by Johann G. Goldammer, leader of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, UNECE/FAO, Team of Specialists on Forest Fire and Coordinator of the Global Wildland Fire network, Mr. Ban welcomed the efforts of fire specialists to build what he described as “a culture of prevention.”

He stressed the need for a coordinated approach to fire management, encompassing agriculture, forestry, health, science, environmental issues, emergency responses and weather forecasting and monitoring.