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Forest Fires in South Eastern Europe: Regional Report

Forest fires

Fire is a natural and beneficial part of many forest ecosystems, but the number and intensity of fires today is challenging fire managers and forest communities throughout the world. Each year wildfires destroy between 6 and 14 million hectares of fire-sensitive forests worldwide, a rate of loss and degradation comparable to that of destructive logging and agricultural conversion. At the same time, many fire-adapted forest ecosystems are fire starved. The immediate impacts of fires are devastating to human communities and forest ecosystems. In the longer term, they adversely affect the supply of environmental services necessary for the well-being of local communities, threaten the survival of endangered species, damage the structural and compositional complexity of biologically important forests, and create suitable conditions for invasive species.

Forest fires are the most important threat to forests and wooded areas in Southern Europe. Around 50,000 fires sweep through 700,000 to 1 million hectares of Mediterranean forest, other wooded land and other land each year, causing enormous economic and ecological damage as well as loss of human life. The Balkan region, which includes parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, is no exception. In the area covered by the present report (comprising Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia), over 220,000 hectares of forest were burned in the years 2007 and 2012 alone. The impacts of fires in this region vary — from economic losses related to fire suppression and burned timber mass to degradation, deforestation, soil erosion, pest infestations (especially bark beetles) and greenhouse gas emissions.

The regional report

The present report provides an overview of the state of play in the forestry sector in SEE in terms of the general framework for forest protection; identifies gaps and practices; and analyses the occurrence and management of forest fires as well as measures implemented by the relevant national authorities for their prevention and mitigation. The overall aim is to map the forest fire context in the individual countries and, from a regional perspective, to identify concrete regional priorities and actions to be taken by key stakeholders in order to close the gaps in laws, policy, implementation and enforcement.

The regional report is based predominantly on information obtained from experienced, nationally recognised forestry experts from the Regional Fire Monitoring Center (RFMC), based in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. The RFMC was contracted in 2014 to undertake national fact-finding studies using a questionnaire. The reports focused mainly on the forestry sector at national level; the organisation of forest management; forest fire prevention and control, including authorities and control mechanisms; the legal and policy regimes for regulating forestry activities; the main causes of forest fires; and the main prevention and mitigation activities. The individual country reports contained only very limited recommendations. Most of the recommendations presented in this regional report are made by the REC on the basis of the information received in the individual reports, but also in relation to the broader regional and international context.

The regional report is divided into the following sections: 1) The forestry sector, forests and fire history; 2) The legal framework and institutional set-up in the field of forest fire management; and 3) The impact of forest fires on the environment, economy and human health. The regional report is structured in such a way as to highlight the general trends in SEE countries and some of the common denominators, as well as the most noteworthy differences. It does not examine every single aspect of forest fires and the precise extent of activities, as this would require more reliable and comparable data and statistics. The report focuses on forest fires mainly from the perspective of causes, drivers, short- and long-term impacts and possible solutions.

Main conclusions

In the SEE region the forestry sector has significant untapped potential and could contribute to the social and economic development of a large stratum of the population. It is therefore vital to identify those elements — such as forest fires — that are preventing the realisation of the full potential of forestry in the region. In addition to forestry, forests play a significant role in other sectors, such as tourism, and are a valuable environmental resource in general.

Certain general patterns can be discerned in the SEE region covered by the present study (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia):

  • the types of forests particularly prone to forest fires (in the Mediterranean and sub-Mediterranean parts of the region);
  • the types of forests that are particularly vulnerable to forest fires, such as beech forests and large territories afforested with coniferous trees (especially Pinus spp.);
  • national systems for forest fire protection involving large numbers of institutions and organisations;
  • the large number of laws regulating forest fire protection;
  • the lack of reliable and aggregated data on forest fires (forest fire statistics);
  • the lack of national early warning systems; and
  • the lack of proper tools, equipment and vehicles for forest fire suppression.


On the whole, forest fire prevention has been compromised by the political, social and economic changes that have taken place over the last two decades. Many of the institutions involved in forest fire protection (including ministries, directorates and agencies) have been restructured or annulled, new institutions have been established, and in some cases competencies have been transferred between institutions. As a result, one of the most pressing regional obstacles, and one that is common to most of the countries, is the overall lack of coordination, and even inconsistencies, between the various institutional and administrative frameworks.

Institutional capacities need further strengthening. There is an overall lack of well-established bilateral processes with neighbouring countries in the field of forest fire protection, especially fire suppression (in the case of either sending or receiving assistance). Not enough is being done in terms of the suppression of cross-border and internal forest fires. In all countries of the region there is a clear lack of specialist equipment such as off-road vehicles, specialised fire trucks, aeroplanes and helicopters. In addition, the impacts of climate change (lengthy dry periods, heat waves and decreased precipitation) are among the main factors behind the large number of forest fires and the large expanses of burned area.

The main causes of forest fires in the region are:

  • agricultural burning;
  • pastureland burning;
  • negligence (along highways, railways etc.); and
  • arson. (The rise in the incidence of arson as a reason for forest fires in the SEE region over the past decade is a cause for concern. The main motive for arson is economic, as arson attacks are generally connected to illegal logging.)

Recommendations

The current international and regional legal, policy and institutional frameworks contain all the essential components for dealing with forest fires. However, they still need to be developed and improved in order to achieve greater efficiency in forest fire protection. In this context, efficiency does not refer only to efficient forest fire suppression, but also to efficient forest fire prevention. The activities required to achieve efficiency can be implemented at both national and international level. The authors of the present report recommend that the countries concerned, in cooperation with international donors, first work on consolidating and strengthening their national institutions and capacities. Attention can then be given to regional and wider international networking. These two different processes should, in fact, be carried out in parallel. The recommendations presented in this report can be implemented by:

  • providing capacity-building trainings for relevant professional personnel (command personnel, forest firefighters etc.);
  • promoting bilateral and regional cooperation;
  • encouraging public participation and raising awareness;
  • establishing national forest fire early warning systems;
  • ensuring sufficient funds for forest fire protection;
  • improving legal regulations;
  • strengthening preparedness measures;
  • strengthening prevention measures;
  • developing fire management research programmes;
  • replicating good fire management practices from other countries and regions; and
  • using the capacities and resources of international organisations (ENVSEC, REC, UNEP, UNDP, OSCE, Council of Europe, GFMC, RFMC etc.).

 

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
Forest Fires