Forest fires and the resultant smoke-haze are relativelynew experiences to Malaysia. However, the problems seem to be increasing inintensity and recurring periodically. Last year, the haze and forest firescaused a serious environmental problems in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei andIndonesia. Most of the forest fires reported in Malaysia occurred in degraded orlogged-over peat swamp forests, both in the east and west coasts of PeninsularMalaysia and the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak. The extent of peatland destroyedby fires is not known precisely, but a prolonged extremely dry period early in1998 had exacerbated the resurgence of peat fires over a wide area in Malaysia.
Although peat forest fires in Peninsular Malaysia were notof the same magnitude as in neighbouring Indonesia, they have caused significantdamage to property, vegetation, wildlife, environment and public health. Firehas been identified as one of the major threats causing the loss of peat swampforests in several states in Malaysia. Serious occurrences of forest firesduring recent years are due to improper peatland management, slash and burnactivities and poor water management, rather than climatic factors such as along dry spell. The condition is made worse because mitigating measures were notin place and the understanding and technical knowledge in forest firefightingwas lacking.
The fires mainly involved peat and beris (heath) forestand bush areas. The fires burned in a slow and patchy manner, but werewidespread. The fires spread slowly through the thick peat layers, making itextremely difficult to detect and extinguish them. In such areas, although thesurface fires are extinguished, the peat underground will continue to burnunless a large amount of water is used to completely drench the peat layers.Consequently, those involved in extinguishing the fires had a difficult time,because they lacked the necessary tools and experience and they were not trainedto handle forest fires. In addition, the remoteness and ruggedness of theterrain exacerbated the problem even further. In many of the affected areas,there were also logistical problems.
The forest fire and haze problems also resulted ingovernment agencies such as the Fire and Rescue Department, Forestry Departmentand the Department of Environment in Malaysia to seriously re-examine theircapacity to deal with wildfires. Relevant measures are being undertaken by theseagencies to address the issue. In the long-term, an awareness campaign on theimportance of peat swamp forests and forest fire hazards needs to be initiatedat all levels by the relevant government agencies. An integrated approach ofmanaging peatlands (agriculture, forestry, aquaculture etc.) is the bestsolution to avoid serious forest fires from recurring.
Various issues related to the conservation of naturalresources and the environment have been given much attention lately at the localand international levels. The problems caused by the haze throughout Malaysiaand her neighbours, mainly resulting from the rampant fires in various parts ofIndonesia since the 1990’s, has received much negative publicity. On the otherhand, these effects have also improved the awareness of the transboundary natureof the impacts of forest fires, the need for better management of our resourcesand the need to enhance forestry cooperation within the region.
Forest fires and the resultant haze are still generallyconsidered new problems facing Malaysia. However, their intensity and recurrencehave been increasing. In 1997/98, one of the worst episodes of haze struck thisregion, engulfing Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. The main source ofthe haze was attributed to the forest/bush fires that occurred in various partsof Sumatra and Kalimantan coupled with the ElNiñophenomenon, although there were also forest and bush fires reported in Malaysia.At the height of the fire episode about 1000 new fires were recorded bysatellite sensors in Indonesia within a two-week period. The Malaysian AirPollutant Index (API)exceeded the hazardous level of 500 in Sarawak, forcing the government to closeschools and offices. The haze caused the Malaysian public much discomfort andresulted in disruption to air travel, increased respiratory and related healthproblems and a significant decrease in tourists visiting the country. Had thehaze conditions persisted a little longer, it would have embarrassed the nationand disrupted the prestigious Commonwealth Games that the nation proudly hostedin September 1998.
However, the haze cannot be totally attributed to theforest fires in Indonesia alone as there were also fires reported in variousparts of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. Many of these fires occurred indegraded peat lands, logged-over forest reserves and secondary state forests.They have caused significant damage to property and loss of valuable timber aswell as biological diversity. In this regard, however, there were no detailedstudies on the extent and impact of the forest fires undertaken, making itdifficult assess the actual situation.
Extent of forest fires in Malaysia
The worst forest fires experienced by Malaysia were in1982/83 when almost one million hectares of natural forest burned in Sabah. Thiswas at the same time when numerous fires affected Borneo and 3.2 million ha inKalimantan. However, for Malaysia this was the only case where natural forestfires of this magnitude were ever recorded. Subsequently, forest fires continuedto occur in Malaysia but the extent was less and mainly located in secondaryconversion forests, forest plantations and degraded forests. Forest fires havebeen reported as early as the 1970s in the pine plantations and the 1980s in theAcacia mangium plantations. However,many of these fires were not recorded properly. Tables 1 and 2 show theoccurrences of fires that were recorded in Malaysia beginning in 1992-1997 and1998 respectively.
It is obvious from the above records that incidences offorest fires mainly occurred in forest plantations, degraded peat swamp forestsand logged-over forests. The frequency of occurrences also increases appreciablyduring the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) years whereprolonged dry spells are experienced.
Causes of forest fires
Under normal conditions, the undisturbed tropical moistforests of Malaysia and Indonesia will not catch fire easily and even if they doburn, the fire will not be widespread. With an average annual rainfall of about2 540 mm, humidity exceeding 75 percent and the rate of litter decomposition onthe forest floor relatively fast, the climatic conditions are generally humidand fuel build-up on the forest floor is minimal. Unless these conditions arechanged, there is very little chance of the forest catching fire. However, whenthe forest is disturbed and degraded with much debris available on the forestfloor and canopy cover opened, the forest becomes more vulnerable to forestfires (especially after a prolonged dry spell). Particularly for the peat swampforests, the soil is always moist. However, when water in these areas is drainedduring development projects, the peat becomes completely dry and is very proneto fire. Under these conditions the fire spreads underground and can stayburning for a long time.
The recent prolonged dry spell caused much of the lalang (Imperatacylindrica) and gelam (Malaleucacajuputi) areas of the secondary beris (heath) forests and degraded peatswamp forests to dry up. Since the soil consists of mainly sand and humus in theberis areas and dried peat in the peatlands, small amounts of rain were notsufficient to retain adequate soil moisture. Most of the smaller rivers had alsodried up. In such conditions, these areas are very vulnerable to fire. Thesources of the fire are mostly human-cased. Some of the major reasons for thecause of fire are as follows:
Land preparations in establishing agricultural plantations
Land preparation by farmers
Shifting cultivation by indigenous people
Camping and picnicking
Snapped electric cable
Natural Causes lightning, spontaneous combustion, etc.
Table 1.Forest fires in Malaysia 1992-1997
YearLocationForest TypeArea burned (ha)Probable Causes1992 Terengganu Acacia mangium plantation 265 Nearby land clearing and from picnickers at nearby recreational Forest Johor Acacia mangium plantation 3 Unknown Selangor Acacia mangium plantation 10 Power transmission
Pinus caribaea plantation 16 Adjacent land clearing by villagers Sabah Natural forest 2 500 Cooking by hunters Natural forest 1 000 Arson Natural forest 825 Nearby land clearing, picnickers and cigarettes Primary forest reserve 65 Adjacent land clearing by farmers 1994 Perak Acacia mangium & Tectona grandis plantation 333 Adjacent land clearing by farmers Sarawak Acacia mangium plantation 15 Unknown Plantation (various species) 50 Adjacent land clearing by farmers 1995 Selangor Degraded peat- swamp forest 155 Adjacent land clearing by villagers 1996 Perak Secondary forest 24 Cigarettes 1997 Perak Natural forest & FRIM research plots 22 Adjacent land clearing by farmers and hunting Pahang Natural forest (state-owned) 202 Adjacent land clearing for oil palm plantation Peat-swamp forest 202 Adjacent land clearing by villagers Total
Table 2.Forest fires in Peninsular Malaysia 1998. Source: Forest Department PeninsularMalaysia and FRIM statistics
LocationForest TypeArea burned (ha)Probable CausesKelantan Forest plantation 15 Snapped Electrical Transmission lines Secondary forest 240 Adjacent land clearing by farmers and private land owners Degraded heath forest 310 Adjacent land clearing by farmers and private land owners Degraded peat forest 40 Adjacent land clearing by farmers and private land owners Selangor Forest plantation 5 Cigarettes Peat-swamp forest 250 Burning of rubbish by adjacent villagers Perak Secondary forest 60 Unidentified Peat-swamp forest 40 Hunting Johor Peat-swamp forest 41 Unidentified Montane forest 15 Unextinguished carbide lamps by mountain climbers Kedah Secondary forest 41 Adjacent land clearing by farmers Trengganu Peat-swamp forest 900 Adjacent land clearing by farmers and private land owners Logged forest 120 Unidentified Heath forest 250 Unidentified Freshwater swamp forest 15 Fishing by nearby villagers Forest reserve 30 Adjacent land clearing by farmers and private land owners Pahang Peat-swamp forest 360 Land clearing by indigenous people and adjacent farmers Forest plantation 6 Unidentified Secondary forest 61 Unidentified Total
In many cases fires get out of control during burningcarried out during establishment of agricultural plantations. The same may alsohappen when smallholders and farmers undertake land clearing in preparation forthe next planting. Improper burning techniques and strong winds may cause thefires to spread to nearby secondary forests. There were also cases wherecampfires made by campers and hunters were not extinguished properly, resultingin the occurrence of forest fires. Some areas were deliberately burned tofacilitate hunting. The burned areas seem to attract game, making them easytargets for hunters.
In Selangor and Kelantan, part of the Acaciamangium plantations were burned because of a snapped high voltage electrictransmission cable. In both cases, fortunately, the fire was quickly containedand damage was not extensive.
In Pahang, Sabah and especially in Sarawak, the practiceof shifting cultivation by the indigenous people (OrangAsli) is also a major factor contributing to the occurrence of fires. It is estimated that approximately 65 000 ha. of forest in Sarawakare cut and burned by shifting cultivators. Not only do they degrade valuableprime forestland, their practice of clearing small patches of the forest byburning can sometimes cause widespread damage during the dry spells.
According to the Director of the Fire and RescueDepartment (FRD), the awareness among the public, especially in rural areas, onthe dangers of open burning during dry periods was clearly lacking. People arenot aware that taking the easy path of burning to facilitate land preparationfor agriculture can be extremely dangerous. He advised that it would beappropriate that the FRD be consulted before any burning is undertaken,especially during the dry periods.
It was also found that the public is more concerned aboutthe haze rather than the destruction of forests by fires. If forests were burnedwithout causing too much haze in the populated centres, then the outcry wouldhave been far smaller.
Irresponsible cigarette smokers are also a great concern.People who smoke cigarettes often simply throw the butts without ensuring thatthey have been properly extinguished. A large portion of fires that originatedfrom the roadsides and then spread inwards to the forest reserves are suspectedto be caused by smokers who throw unextinguished cigarettes while travellingalong the roads.
The fires caused extensive damage to vegetation, wildlife,environment and the health of people surrounding the affected areas. The hazeand air pollution were at a dangerous level in most of these areas and at timesreached unbearable and hazardous levels. Although there were increasedrespiratory and related ailments, the long term health implications of affectedpeople in the vicinity of the forest fires is difficult to predict and are acause for concern. Conditions in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak became socritical that the Malaysian Government decided to assist Indonesia in puttingout the fires. A total of 1 262 firefighters (the largest ever recorded) fromMalaysia were deployed to Sumatra and Kalimantan to combat the forest fires.
Areas affected by fire are rapidly colonised by resam andlalang. Consequently, as the fires occur every year, more and more highly richand varied ecosystems will be replaced by weeds such as resam (Glycheniaspp.) and lalang (Imperata spp.).There is a real danger that besides loss of biodiversity, the areas will neverbe regenerated by trees. The extensive Imperatagrasslands in many parts of the Philippines and Papua New Guinea are clearexamples. Forest fires have also been identified as a major cause for the lossof peat swamp forests in Malaysia.
Although direct financial estimates due to fires were notavailable, many hours were spent in fighting fires. This involved personnel fromthe FRD, State Forestry Department, Police, Drainage and Irrigation Department,Public Defence Department (JPA 3), Public Works Department, Local Town Councilsand also members of the community. During the period, air travel was oftendisrupted, the tourism sector adversely affected and cost of medical treatmentfor haze related ailments increased.
Other smoke/haze related losses
The 1997 haze reached a critical level, both in terms ofintensity and duration, causing much inconveniences and economic disruptions tothe Malaysian economy. Other than health impacts, the haze has caused variousother quantifiable losses including:
The haze in 1997 reached a new urgency in Malaysia whenthe readings from the Air Pollution Index (API) reached 500. A state ofemergency was declared for 10 days in Sarawak. The haze can result in variousproduction losses of economic activities. These haze-related production lossesincluded:
A reduction in crop yields resulting from reduced sunlight. Theappropriate method to adopt is a dose response function relating sunlight toyield. Data on sunlight would be needed.
A reduction in fishing effort due to reduced visibility. The fishing daysforegone would have to be multiplied by the expected profit per day. A moreencompassing evaluation requires the computation of losses in consumer andproducer surpluses.
A reduction in industrial and commercial activity due to delays intransportation inputs and outputs; and an increase in cleaning and maintenanceof equipment due to dust and corrosion. During production shutdown, profitsforegone would have to be estimated.
In principle, as for all damages, estimates should be forprofits foregone, not gross value. As a proxy, it is suggested to use days ofwork lost due to shutdowns at a minimum or average wage.
Losses incurred by the tourism industry can be estimatedby the reduced tourist arrivals from non-ASEAN sources. This is done in order tocontrol for the effect of the 1997 ASEAN economic crisis which in itself isexpected to effect incoming ASEAN tourists. Like the case in fishing effort, thelosses occurring in August-October 1997 were compared to the “normal”August-October period of 1996. In this way any change in impacts caused by otherfactors are controlled.
Airline and airport losses
To obtain the losses incurred from airport closures due topoor visibility, estimates of the number of cancelled flights and forgone saleswere obtained and multiplied by the airline’s average profit rate. Any profitsforegone from operation of the airports themselves are then added to the above.
Apart from the loss arising from the haze, the MalaysianGovernment and firms have incurred averting expenditures to contain the impactsof the haze and to help control the source, i.e. in forest firefighting andcloud seeding operations.
Although the cost of the health impacts is small, theoverall impacts from other sectors were quite large. According to the Economyand Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA) study, the estimatedincremental cost of the haze damage to Malaysia during the months of August toOctober in 1997 was RM816 million (Tab.3). The largest component is theproductivity losses during the declaration of a 10-day state of emergency inSarawak. The health impacts contributed only 4.4 percent.
Table3. Aggregate incremental costs of the damagecaused by smoke haze.
Type of Damages (1)RM MillionPercentage Adjusted cost of illness 36.16 4.43 Productivity loss during the emergency 393.51 48.19 Tourist arrival decline 318.55 39.02 Flight cancellations 0.45 0.06 Fish landing decline (2) 40.72 4.99 Cost of fire fighting 25.00 3.06 Cloud seeding 2.08 0.25 Total816.47100.00
(1)Cost to Malaysian MNCs of RM2.5 million is not included as this amount mighthave been used by the Government to pay for various avertive expenditures.
(2) Onlydeclining consumer surplus is taken into account as the gain in producer surplusis not a cost.
Source: Mohd Shahwahidand Jamal (1999).
Issues in combating forest fires
In Malaysia, the Fire and Rescue Department is the agencyresponsible for combating all kinds of fire including forest fires. However,during the combating of forest fires the agency is assisted by other relevantagencies such as the Forestry Department, Public Defence Department, Drainageand Irrigation Department, the police and the local town councils.
The fires that occur in the peat and heath forest/bushareas are relatively slow and patchy but widespread. The fires spread throughthe forest floor. Thus, even if whole trees were not felled, the root systemscould be completely damaged and often the trees would fall and die. In peatlands, the fires spread slowly through the thick peat layers making it extremelydifficult to detect and extinguish fires. In such areas, although the surfacefires are extinguished, the peat underground will continue to burn unless alarge amount of water is used to completely drench the peat layers.Consequently, in peat lands, the most effective way of containing the fires willbe by flooding the area.
In Kelantan and Terengganu, the areas that were burned hadrelatively shallow peat layers. As such, a single heavy rainfall would besufficient to ensure that the fires are extinguished. Much of the fire thatfinally came under control in Terengganu was due to some heavy showers thatoccurred in early May. However, this was not the case for Pahang and Selangorwhere peat layers were found to be relatively deep. In such conditions, to fullyextinguish the surface as well as the subterranean fire, the area would need acontinuous heavy rainfall or an artificial flooding with water from nearbysources. The latter method was implemented effectively in Selangor by pumpingwater from adjacent tin mining pools and rivers.
Although the fires in some areas were put out by the FireDepartment, the fires recurred. In such areas, although the fires on the surfacewere controlled, the peat fire underneath was not fully extinguished. This wasalso the case for the beris forests. In this regard, the Director of FRDreported that 800 gallons of water had to be used to douse the fire in an areaof about 10 square meters. During the dry ENSO period, such large amounts ofwater is difficult to obtain.
In many of the affected areas, there were logisticalproblems that arose from poor access. The Fire and Rescue Departmentsvehicles were designed for structural firefighting and not for travelling inforested areas and thus they were unable to venture into interior areas thatwere affected by fires. There was a serious lack of water sources to enable theFire Department to fight the fires effectively. Even in cases where pits andcanals were dug, they dried up quickly.
Some of the firefighting equipment used needs to beimproved, e.g. the conventional water pumps used were too heavy and could notwork for long hours. In Kelantan, however, firefighters tested a new pumpprovided by Canada. Apparently the pump was not only lighter, it could also workfor long hours.
Under such conditions, according to the FRD, the best wayto tackle forest fires is to contain them by preventing their spread, especiallyto sensitive areas and communities. This is undertaken by creating fire breaks.
There is no specific legislation on forest fires under theMalaysian National Forestry act of 1984 (revised 1993). However, there is aprovision prohibiting fire-related activities in the permanent reserve forestsand there are penalties for such offences. Likewise, the Environmental QualityAct of 1974 explicitly prohibits open burning without a permit to curtail airpollution and the occurrence of haze.
From past trends, the possibility of recurring fires inMalaysia is very likely in the natural and plantation forests. The severity offuture fires will depend on weather conditions as well as the awareness anddiscipline of the public at large. Past experience shows that the possibilitiesof fires occurring in fire prone areas are very high during ENSO periods. Stepsneed to be taken to identify these areas and institute prevention and controlmeasures. There seem to be sufficient measures in place to prevent and combatfires in the forest plantations. However, similar measures are grossly lackingfor the natural forest areas as managers still view lightly the threat of firesin such forests.
Some of the immediate steps are to ensure that surroundingcommunities are informed of the detrimental effects of open burning anduncontrolled land clearing practices. There also is a need to adopt conservationmeasures while in or near the forest, build fire breaks and develop permanentwater sources. It will take a combined effort of government agencies, privateagencies and others to overcome fire problems in the future. The severity of the1998 fire season and the involvement of various agencies and the community infighting the fires should have increased the awareness for the need to takeprecautionary measures in the future.
Some of the recommended control measures include:
Increasing public awarenessThe FRD has an on-going program of creatingawareness among the public. However, such programmes need to be improved andintensified. It should also involve other agencies and should reach awider range of people. This is a long-term, but very effective strategy.
Sustainable forest managementNatural forests that are managed in a sustainable manner, where the structureand overall integrity are not compromised, are very resilient to fires. It iswhen they are disturbed that they become prone to fire as indicated clearly inthe statistics provided in Tables 1 and 2. Most of the secondary and degradedforests that were burned were not forest reserves but state forests that wereearmarked for conversion. Often the spread of fire halts when it reaches theundisturbed forests.
Creatingbuffer zones There should be an effective bufferzone or fire breaks constructed surrounding Permanent Reserved Forests and StateForests adjacent to agricultural lands and communities. This would help toensure that the forests are protected from fire which often originate from morepopulated areas.
Constructionof canals In degraded peat forests where fires arelikely to recur, canals should be constructed. The canals could be used tocollect water and facilitate firefighting in the future.
Notificationof FRD and DOE In any land preparation involvingburning, the FRD and Department of Environment (DOE) will have to be notifiedfor approval.
Developmentof Forest Fire Squads The FRD should endeavour toset up a forest fire squad. This squad should have the necessary training andskills in forest/bush firefighting. They should also be equipped with thenecessary equipment. The use of suitably equipped helicopters should be furtherexplored. In this regard, initial efforts have already been implemented whentraining was provided for the FRD in basic forestry knowledge.
Developmentof Risk Index Fire prone areas will have toidentified and located. An early warning system together with a risk class indexshould be developed. With such a system, mobilisation of resources could beoptimised and targeted to areas with higher risks of fire.
TheForest Fire Prevention and Control Plan The StateForestry Departments of Peninsular Malaysia have developed a plan on theprevention and control of fires within the natural and plantation forests (AnnexI). Each state also has assigned a forestry officer to handle all matterspertaining to forest fires. The plan details precautionary measures to preventfire in forest areas in natural and plantation forests, allocation of equipmentand personnel and forest firefighting protocols. The development of this planbegan in 1999 and is an excellent effort undertaken by the Forestry Department.
Rehabilitationof degraded areas Forest areas affected by fire,be it in the Permanent Reserved Forest or state-owned land, should berehabilitated quickly to prevent further degradation of the area through soilerosion and colonisation of pioneers and weeds. The burned area needs to beregenerated to restore the area into a productive forest again.
Forestfire research To date, research efforts have notgiven sufficient focus into issues related to forest fires. The reason for thismay be that in the past no serious fires had occurred in the Permanent ReservedForest. It is also felt that issues concerning forest fires are mainly socialand management in nature. However, the current situation warrants that prioritybe accorded to undertaking research in order to address such issues as:
Impacts of fires on the forest vegetation andenvironment
Water management of peat lands
Socio-economic implications of forest fires
Development of zero burning techniques in landpreparations for plantations
Development of fire risk classes and earlywarning systems.
NetworkingThe transboundary nature of forest fire problemshas suggested a network approach for sharing of information and experience.Networking is a cost-effective mechanism for strengthening institutionalcapacity, facilitating transfer of technology and enhancing cooperation. Forexample, Indonesia has more experience in combating forest fires and is alsomore advanced in research in forest fire management. As such, a country likeMalaysia would be able to identify and use some of this knowledge and expertiseavailable in addressing similar issues.
Problems caused by forest fires in the ASEAN region haveassumed a new and serious dimension that needs to be addressed sufficiently.Large areas of forestlands have been devastated, resulting in economic lossesthat run into billions of dollars, degradation of our environment andirreversible losses of valuable biological diversity. The episodes of forestfires and haze in the last two decades, namely in 1982/83, 1990, 1991, 1994 and1997/98 should serve as useful lessons to be more cautious and undertake allefforts to ensure that we are prepared in the future. The ENSO dry spells willcome and the fires will recur. The intensity of the problem will then depend onour state of preparedness to face the crisis, as well as the degree in which weare able to implement the various preventive measures.
IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:
Wan Mohd Shukri Wan Ahmad Natural Forest Division Forest Research InstituteMalaysia (FRIM) Kepong, 52109 Kuala Lumpur MALAYSIA
Goldammer J.G. (ed.). 1990. Fire in the tropical biota.Ecosystem processes and global challenges. Ecological Studies 84.Springer-Verlag, New York-Heidelberg.
Haron abu Hassan (ed.). 1997. Transboundary pollution andthe sustainability of the tropical forests: Towards wise forest fire management.Proceeding of the ASEAN Institute of Forest Management International Conference,Kuala Lumpur 2-4 December 1996.
Mohd Puad Dahlan and Tg. Abdullah Tg. Ismail. 1998.Pengurusan Ladang Hutan dan Pencegahan Kebakaran. Paper presented at theForestry Seminar for the Fire and Rescue Department held at FRIM 22-27 Jun 1998.
Mohd Shahwahid, H.O. and O. Jamal. 1999. Malaysia. Chapter3, Indonesia’s fires and haze: The cost of a catastrophe (D. Glover and T.Jessup, eds.). Institute of South East Asian Studies. Singapore.
Samsudin Musa and Wan M. Shukri Wan Ahmad. 1998. Report onthe status of forest fires in Kelantan and Terengganu. Forest Research InstituteMalaysia (unpubl.).
Figure 1.Forest fire management organization in Malaysia
1 Malaysian Standard of Air Pollutant Index (API) is measured in mg/m3 of air sampled. The scales of the index are categorised as follows: 0-50 = Good; 51-100 = Moderate; 101-200 = Unhealthy; 201-300 = Very Unhealthy; 301-500 = Hazardous.