Early Warning Systems for fire management

Johann Georg Goldammer
Fire Ecology Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Biogeochemistry Department,
c/o Freiburg University, P.O. Box, 79085 Freiburg, Germany.
Tel. : +49-761-808011,
Fax: +49-761-808012,
E-mail: jggold@ruf.uni-freiburg.de

Wildfires annually effect several hundred million hectares of forest and other vegetation of the world. In some ecosystems fire plays an ecologically significant role in biogeochemical cycles and disturbance dynamics. In other ecosystems fire may lead to the destruction of forests or to long-term site degradation. In most areas of the world wildfires burning under extreme weather conditions will have detrimental impacts on economies, human health and safety, with consequences which are comparable to the severity of other natural hazards.

Fires in forests and other vegetation produce gaseous and particle emissions that have impacts on the composition and functioning of the global atmosphere. These emissions interact with those from fossil-fuel burning and other technological sources which are the major cause for anthropogenic climate forcing. Smoke emissions from wildland fires also cause visibility problems which may result in accidents and economic losses. Smoke generated by wildland fires also affect human health and causes sometimes also losses of human lives. Fire risk modelling in expected climate change scenarios indicate that within a relatively short period, the next three to four decades, the destructiveness of human-caused and natural wildfires will increase. Fire management strategies which include preparedness and early warning cannot be generalised due to the multi-directional and -dimensional effects of fire in the different vegetation zones and ecosystems and the manifold cultural, social, and economic factors involved. However, unlike the majority of the geological and hydro-meteorological hazards included in the IDNDR Early Warning Programme, wildland fires represent a natural hazard which can be predicted, controlled and, in many cases, prevented. Early warning systems are essential components of fire and smoke management. They rely on evaluation of vegetation dryness and weather; detection and monitoring of active fires; integrating and processing of these data in fire information systems with other relevant information, e.g. vegetation cover and values at risk; modelling capabilities of fire occurrence and behaviour; and dissemination of information.

Early warning of fire and atmospheric pollution hazard may involve locally generated indicators, such as local fire-weather forecasts and assessment of vegetation dryness. Advanced technologies, however, which rely on remotely sensed data, evaluation of synoptic weather information and international communication systems (e.g., Internet) are now also available for remote locations.

The paper presents the findings of the IDNDR Early Warning Group on Wildfire and Related Hazards and reviews the current state of knowledge and practice on the subject. It provides a state-of-the-art analysis of existing and projected early warning and fire information systems which can be equally made accessible at global scale.

Recommendations are also made for improvements and areas that require additional international attention: the design and implementation of a global fire inventory; establishment of a Global Vegetation Fire Information System (GVFIS); establishment of a system in which real-time information on early warning of wildfire precursors and on ongoing wildfire situations across the globe is gathered and shared, e.g. through the creation of a World Fire Web; development of spaceborne sensors and platforms with improved early warning capabilities; establishment of an information network which includes the resource status by continuously monitoring the disposition of suppression resources; establishment of a global fire management facility under the auspices of the UN system; promotion of policies and agreements on early warning of wildfires at international levels; and co-ordination of research efforts with ongoing and future fire science programmes.