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International co-operation can help us all prevent and alleviate fire damage

By David Kaimowitz - posted Friday, 3 October 2003

As a US citizen working in Indonesia for an organisation set up with considerable Australian assistance, I take an active interest in the stories about Australia that appear in the Indonesian media. Given the capricious nature of the Indonesia-Australian relationship you would expect these stories to focus on the countries' political relations. But the stories cover the full spectrum of sport, politics, economics, the environment, culture, lifestyles and, as with media around the world, Australia's latest movie stars. It goes to show how much importance Indonesians place on their nation's relationship with Australia.

One heart-wrenching example in recent times was the tragic bushfire that engulfed the ACT and destroyed 500 homes in January this year. The images of fires sweeping out of forests areas onto Canberra's suburban streets were widely broadcast by Indonesian television and newspapers. They typified what the President of the Australasian Fire Authorities Council says are the tragic and "constant reminders that we are members of a global community and that the challenges we face can be overcome through collective effort".

The role of the global community in dealing with fires is a major theme at this weekend's International Wildland Fire Conference in Sydney. This is a particularly relevant theme for Australia and Indonesia because Australia has become an important reference point for Indonesia in how to tackle the fires that break out annually across the archipelago.


For example, during the Indonesian fires of 1996-97 that engulfed much of the region in smoke and haze, including northern Australia, Australia sent fire-fighters to assist their colleagues in Indonesia. When Australia uses high-tech helicopters to water-bomb fires, the Indonesian media inevitably asks whether its government should invest in similar equipment. And as Chris Gallus, the Parliamentary Secretary for Australia's overseas aid program noted last year, Australia has an important role to play in helping its close neighbour find solutions to its fire problems.

Fires in Australia and Indonesia have many similarities. Admittedly, the smoke and haze from Indonesia's fires are not an issue for the residents of Canberra but perhaps the underlying causes of fires in both countries are. People working on fire issues in Australia and Indonesia recognise that the deliberate use of fire to clear land can both alleviate or cause problems and thus there is a need in both countries to develop sustainable fire management practices.

Many of these issues will be addressed by fire management professionals from both developed and developing nations at the conference. And, as with many forest and environmental concerns, Australia and Indonesia can learn a lot from each other about preventing fires and the better use of fire in land management practices. This is particularly true in northern Australia and eastern Indonesia.

During the 10 years since Australia played a leading role in establishing the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia, CIFOR has undertaken extensive research on fires in Indonesia, often with the support of Australian aid through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the Crawford Fund. And often in partnership with Australian scientists, universities and fire-fighting organisations.

One example of how the developed and developing nations can work together in better understanding bushfires is an Australian supported research project into the impact and use of fire for sustainable forest management in Australia and Indonesia. Managed by CIFOR, the Northern Territory University and fire agencies in Australia and Indonesia, the project recognises that Indonesia and northern Australia share a need to develop systems for managing fires and to incorporate these systems into workable fire management policies.

It also recognizes that not only developing fire management policies and practices but also examining how to best implement them at the local and regional level is crucial to preventing fires and reducing their environmental, social and economic impacts. It is this kind of research cooperation that will help ensure greater understanding of the common underlying causes of fires and where and how practices and policies in one country might benefit the fire management practices in another country.


While Indonesia is no stranger to the urban destruction of fires experienced last summer in Canberra, rarely is the loss of life and property due to out-of-control bushfires. More often urban fires are caused by a fallen candle or exploding kerosene stove in a densely packed, low-economic residential area. While this is no less a human catastrophe and needs to be addressed, the risk of landscape fires and their impact must also be examined. It is therefore pleasing to note that the increasing cooperation between Australia and Indonesia will assist both countries learn from each other about forest fires. More importantly, perhaps it will help prevent a repetition of the tragedy that devastated Canberra last January.

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About the Author

David Kaimowitz is the Director General for the Center for International Forestry Research.

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