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People in developing countries are expected to be able to speed up their response to threatening blazes, following the launch last week (11 August) of the first global system for monitoring fires.

The Global Fire Information Management System (GFIMS) offers almost real-time detection of emerging fires, and alerts users through an online portal or via email. Soon it will also provide updates in the form of text messages, allowing anyone with a mobile phone to use the system.

"Many developing countries don't have their own national alert system," said Pieter van Lierop, Forestry Officer at the FAO in Rome. "In those cases, the people responsible for fire management can get an alert and find out if it is a damaging fire or a controlled fire."

Uncontrolled fires are a worldwide problem, but Africa is worst hit. The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission estimates that fires in forests and other areas of vegetation affect 350 million hectares of land each year, and half of this damage occurs in Africa.

The system developed in collaboration with the University of Maryland, uses data from a pair of NASA satellites which pass over every point on the globe at least once every six hours, taking photographs with an infrared camera that can detect heat levels on the ground.

GFIMS processes the images to produce an online map of fire hotspots, updated roughly two hours after the satellite has passed. This short time-lag allows a rapid response.

Existing fire monitoring systems in Africa can update every 15 minutes, but use geostationary satellites focused on the southern region of the continent. GFIMS will help extend this protection to other areas.

"It's unlikely to benefit South Africa because we have a real time system giving us much faster responses, but it would certainly benefit countries which don't have a service like that," said Bob Scholes, a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa.

But Johann Goldammer, director of the Global Fire Monitoring Centre in Freiburg, Germany, stressed the need for fire management information on a local or national level. "If you want to make things happen you need an organisational system that reaches the local people responsible," he said.