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Fight With Forest Fires Far Beyond Helicopters, Fire Extinguishers: Official

15.10.2023 19:12

Main strategy should be aimed at preventing forest fires, reducing number of fires that break out rather just decrease in casualties, material damage, says forest engineer.

Officials should work to prevent forest fires from breaking out instead of just trying to put out blazes and curb casualties and material damage, according to a Turkish forest engineer.

From earthquakes, wildfires, and droughts to floods, landslides, cyclones, and storms, 2023 has been a catastrophic year by surpassing previous years' statistics.

For Fire Prevention Week on Oct. 9-15, Anadolu exclusively talked with an expert on the issue to find out the possible reasons for the radical increase in both the number and casualties of wildfires around the world and how to prevent them.

'Nearly 90% of fires are human-caused'

The cause of forest fires worldwide is various spark-causing activities caused by people intentionally or unintentionally, Doganay Tolunay, a faculty member of the Department of Soil Science and Ecology at Türkiye's Istanbul University, told Anadolu.

"Approximately 90% of forest fires are caused by various human activities," the forest engineer said.

Underlining the radical increase in wildfires worldwide in the last couple of years, he stated: "The most important reason for this increase is that people are converting forests into residential areas."

While human-based factors are in the first place among all the reasons behind these fires, Tolunay emphasized that the secondary factor is climate change itself.

"Climate change does not directly cause forest fires," he stressed.

"With the fires started by people for various reasons, drought and extremely hot weather conditions caused by climate change, fires spread to very large areas in a very short time, and it becomes difficult to extinguish them in a controlled manner," the expert pointed out.

Mentioning that the increase has been much clear to notice in the last 20 years, especially in the last four or five years, he noted: "The area affected by a single fire varies from country to country, but if it is around 10,000 hectares at least, we call such fires mega-fires."

"We can say climate change impacts the fires that break out due to those dry and hot conditions turning into mega-fires," Tolunay said.

Risk reduction, disaster handling methods

Meanwhile, he also touched on risk reduction and what can be done to handle these disasters more professionally with the minimum amount of casualties and material damage caused.

"Risk reduction helps to be less affected by disasters such as forest fires and other extreme weather events that increase with climate change, such as floods, droughts, tornadoes and hail," he underscored, adding: "This concept of disaster risk reduction covers pre-disaster, during-disaster and post-disaster preparation."

Emphasizing the critical importance of focusing on what should be done before the forest fires break out, Tolunay called on individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and states, along with the international actors, to do their part.

Individuals should "stay away from activities that may cause sparks in and around forests," especially "in critical meteorological conditions, in the summer months, on very hot, dry and windy days."

Tolunay also suggested protection methods before or in case of a forest fire, including using fire-resistant materials for houses or creating an escape plan.

Raising awareness in the public about the dangers and risks of forest fires and how to handle the disaster effectively is the responsibility of NGOs, private companies, states and international actors, the expert warned.

"There are studies that the private sector can also do, such as how to extinguish fires, how to evacuate people, and how to make fire evacuation plans in their own facilities, especially for tourist facilities that are intertwined with forests," he mentioned.

The forest engineer also advised those actors to include animals in the evacuation plans as they are the "forest villagers."

In addition, fire departments should "first check the equipment before a forest fire starts, purchase equipment, if necessary, make repairs, question whether the number of fire personnel is sufficient or not, and recruit new personnel, if necessary," he stated.

"Activities such as training the personnel, purchasing and maintaining vehicles such as aircraft, helicopters or watercraft are required," and expected from the states to handle, he stressed.

"In summary, the fight against forest fires requires a fight that goes far beyond helicopters taking off, dropping water in a short time and fire extinguishers," he warned.

"Especially in the context of climate change, the main strategy should be to prevent forest fires or reduce the number of fires.

"While doing these, it is necessary to protect the villagers and facilities in the forest as much as possible and to plan their evacuation together with the work."

Major blazes

Greece experienced a massive wildfire in its northeastern Evros region, the largest in the past two decades, which raged for approximately two weeks. The fire, which started on August 19th, consumed more than 292,587 hectares (722,998 acres) of forest land, surpassing the size of New York City, as reported by the European Commission.

The Athens authorities attributed the Evros wildfire and others to arsonists, exacerbated by strong winds and high temperatures. Tragically, 20 people, including two children, lost their lives in the Dadia forest in Evros due to the wildfire.

In Spain, another wildfire ignited on August 15th, scorching around 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) and marking the worst on record for the Canary Islands. The government officials claimed that over 12,600 individuals were evacuated from their homes.

Just another forest fire on the Spanish island of Tenerife also forced more than 3,000 people to be evacuated from their homes.

Canada also experienced an unprecedented number of wildfires, with 5,500 wildfires consuming 13.4 million hectares (33.1 million acres) by early August, with officials warning of significant fire activity yet to come. More than 211 evacuation orders were issued, and over 167,000 people were forced to leave their homes.

In late August, wildfires in northwestern and central Türkiye resulted in injuries to seven people, all non-life-threatening, according to the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD). Approximately 4,080 hectares (10,081 acres) of land were affected, including about 2,650 hectares (6,548 acres) of forest and 1,430 hectares (3,533 acres) of agricultural and other areas.

Additionally, the historic town of Lahaina in the US state of Hawaii faced a devastating wildfire in August, leading to the loss of at least 115 lives and the evacuation of over 1,400 residents to shelters. US President Joe Biden declared a major disaster for Maui Island, home to Lahaina, marking one of Hawaii's worst natural disasters in history.

Algeria also experienced over 80 wildfires that erupted in 15 provinces in July, which persisted for weeks and resulted in at least the death of 34 people along with 194 injured, as reported by the country's Interior Ministry.

In another North African country, Tunisia, the government announced on July 27 that over 20 forest fires had occurred nationwide, damaging over 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres) of land, displacing numerous families, and all fires were under control.

Tanzania has also been the scene of a wildfire in September, for which 134 firefighters were dispatched to Mount Kilimanjaro to combat for nearly a week. -

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