How can satellite data help public officials better understand and manage Swaziland’s fires?

In late July 2007 a series of wildfires, propelled by a prolonged dry season and strong winds, destroyed thousands of hectares of forests and plantations and killed a dozen people in Swaziland. Since then, droughts and heat waves have repeatedly hit the country, creating the conditions for long and devastating fire seasons.

“Extended, uncontrollable fires are increasingly common in Swaziland, causing great human, environmental and economic losses,” says Dr. Wisdom Mdumiseni Dlamini, former Director of Nature Conservation at the Swaziland National Trust Commission, former GOFC-GOLD fellow and now Lecturer at the University of Swaziland. “What is more, Swaziland’s legal framework for fire management is outdated and not appropriate to respond to this crisis and emerging fire management challenges.”

In recent years Wisdom has been involved in the development of a draft national fire legislation that will enable officials to better control and manage wildfires in Swaziland. “I have been a part-time lecturer at the University of Swaziland for many years, teaching remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS) and their use for the environment. My involvement with the GOFC-GOLD network and my participation in the 2014 Data Initiative have helped me deepen my knowledge and have provided concrete resources and tools that I have used while advising the government on a new draft fire management policy.”

Data Initiatives are intensive 2-weeks trainings organized by START as part of the GOFC-GOLD program. Participants are data and Earth observation specialists from the GOFC-GOLD networks, who receive hands-on training on how to access, manage and analyze satellite data. “During the training I downloaded data sets collected by the Landsat series of satellites in the past 30 years. These data sets are freely available, but due to slow internet connection, I wouldn’t have been able to download the entire archive covering the country from Swaziland. Most importantly, I learned how to transform the data into crucial information on fires and changes in land use,” says Wisdom.

How can satellite data help officials better understand and manage wildfires? “Long-term fire statistics are extremely important for fire management and prevention – for example, historical data is used to characterize fire regimes, identify areas at risk and assess the probability of future fires. Many developing countries have not consistently recorded fire statistics – but can retrieve and analyze the datasets collected over the years by the satellites circling the Earth.”

“A more recent focus of my research is deforestation and land degradation, a growing challenge in Swaziland. I used knowledge and resources developed through GOFC-GOLD to quantify for the very first time the changes in forest cover in Swaziland.” Wisdom adds: “My findings, published in two peer-reviewed articles last year, provide concrete models that can be used for improving forestry policies and preventive planning.”

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