Fires Increasingly Damaging World Forests

A U.N. agency urged nations to pool efforts and money to combat forest fires, warning Tuesday that this year's fire season was one of the worst in recent history and that forests were being destroyed across the globe at an alarming rate.


ROME (AP) -- A U.N. agency urged nations to pool efforts and money to combat forest fires, warning Tuesday that this year's fire season was one of the worst in recent history and that forests were being destroyed across the globe at an alarming rate.

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said that about 95 percent of all blazes were sparked by human activities, from throwing a cigarette down in a forest to burning waste.

The report came on the heels of an unusually hot summer in many parts of the world, which the agency said had caused one of the worst fire seasons in recent history.

The agency did not provide an overall figure for 2003, but reported that in 2000, the last year with overall data available, more than 864 million acres were burned -- about the size of India.

Fires have raged for weeks this summer in France, Portugal, Spain, Italy and many other European countries, burning millions of acres of forestry, often with increases compared to previous years.

Portugal, for example, has lost 1 million acres -- up 300 percent over the average losses in the past two decades, the agency said.

In the United States, 7 million acres of forestry were lost to fires -- over 2.4 million acres more than last year.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 420 million acres are burned annually, although some of those fires are necessary for the ecosystem. Australia _ which also has a tradition of burning some of its land to keep its ecosystem intact -- has lost 140.8 million acres this season.

The report mentioned various causes: arson, road construction and private disputes over land tenure.

It also said that using forests for recreation increases the risk of wildfires, noting the growing numbers of tourists camping, hiking or cooking in forests.

In many areas, like North Africa, people who migrate from rural areas neglect the tending of forests, leaving dead trees and bushes to accumulate on the ground, said the report.

The agency called on countries to step up cooperation in combating the fires, including sharing equipment and signing agreements of mutual assistance in case of emergencies.