Trainee Bobby Robedeaux, of a fire fighting squad of the Pawnee, Ponca and Otoe tribes, traverses a burned out hillside, looking for hotspots, in Hailey, Idaho, in 2013. (Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung)
By Andy McElroy
INCHEON, Republic of Korea, 14 October 2015 – This year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction highlighted the power of traditional, indigenous and local knowledge to protect people and communities, and the issue has been in the foreground at a conference of more than 3,000 officials and experts in fire risk management.
The head of UNISDR, Ms. Margareta Wahlström, told the 6th International Wildland Fire Conference that local communities consistently “have an authentic and contextual understanding of their environment, and how to live with, and not against, nature”.
“This is a familiar theme for many – if not all – of you at this Conference,” Ms. Wahlström said in a statement, as she expanded on this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, which took place on Tuesday.
“Whether you work in forestry, human health, ecosystem management, climate and meteorology, or any such sector related to wildland fire risk management, you will know from experience the value of engaging with communities.
“The knowledge of local communities is an ally to scientific knowledge. When combined effectively, the two can form a powerful bedrock for disaster risk management.”
Ms. Wahlström’s remarks were contained in a statement read out by the head of UNISDR’s Office for Northeast Asia and the Global Education and Training Institute, Mr. Sanjaya Bhatia, at the conference in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea. Representatives from more than 80 countries were present.
The Minister of the Korea Forest Service Dr. Shin Wop-sop told the forum that there had been several recent major wildland fire disasters, including the United States, China and Indonesia.
“The outbreaks of large-scale wildland fires have become more frequent and damaging due to global warming and urbanization. This is why international societies must join hands in combating and preventing wildland fire,” Dr. Shin said.
“Countless people and living creatures are losing their home and shelter due to wildland fires. Forest is the future and hope for us all.”
One of the innovations at the conference is the launch of a youth programme to nurture the next generation of fire risk management practitioners and policymakers.
“We set up a thesis presentation platform to encourage undergraduates and graduate students studying fire to attend the conference as well as present their thesis on fire-related legacies, local communities and a combined strategy to manage wildland fires, in order to foster talent in the area,” said Mr. Kim Yong-kwan, Director-General of the International Affairs Bureau at the Korea Forest Service.
Up to 90 percent of wildland fires are human induced. This provides a big opportunity for disaster risk reduction practices to yield impressive results in terms of fewer losses.
Wildland fires affect carbon storage, support to biodiversity, water sources and the resilience of soil and land to degradation as well as climate regulation in tropical ecosystems. UNISDR’s 2013 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction estimated global annual losses from fire as high as US$190 billion per year for tropical ecosystems alone.