Ethiopia: Fire Situation (IFFN No. 25)

Fire Situation in Ethiopia

(IFFN No. 25, July 2001, p. 7-12)


Agriculture is the dominant sector of the Ethiopian economy, accounting for about 45 percent of GDP and 76 percent of export revenue. It is estimated to provide a livelihood for 85 percent of the total population. There are more than seven million predominantly subsistence farm families who, on average, have a holding of 1.5 ha or less per family to cultivate. These farmers produce about 90 percent of the agricultural output, including most food crops (cereals, pulses and oilseeds), coffee, and virtually all livestock.

The primary task of economic development in Ethiopia is to reduce poverty. Substantial progress in poverty reduction can only be achieved through economic growth, and that will depend on growth in the agricultural sector, which in turn is closely related to how land and other natural resources are used (EFAP 1994). Over the last two decades the Ethiopian economy has performed poorly, with agriculture showing declining rates of growth. Both agricultural and economic growth were constrained by the deteriorating natural resource base of the country, especially in the Ethiopian highlands where 80 percent of the population lives. Agricultural productivity in the highlands is severely threatened by land degradation involving both soil erosion and declining soil fertility. This threat stems from the depletion and degradation of the vegetation cover of the country, especially forests, and exploitative farming practices. The clearing of forests is driven by the demand for crop and grazing land and for fuelwood, both spurred by a high rate of population growth. With a decline in fuelwood availability, animal dung and crop residues are increasingly used as household fuel instead of serving as natural fertilizers for the soil, thereby further depressing agricultural yields.

Arresting deforestation and expanding forest resources are, therefore, vital elements of a development strategy addressing poverty in Ethiopia. The new economic policy of the Federal Government of Ethiopia (FGE) identifies, among other things, deforestation, land degradation and diminishing agricultural productivity as key problems.

At present, however, deforestation has accelerated to the extent that only about two percent (2.4 million ha) of the closed natural high forest remains from the 40 percent of a century ago (EFAP 1994). Deforestation is estimated to take place at the rate of 200 000 ha/year. These closed forests are an important timber source and are confined to inaccessible areas in the southern and southwestern parts of the country. These forests are comprised of broad-leaved rain forests, with an estimated area of 2.3 million ha, and 0.1 million ha of coniferous forests that dominate the highlands (WBISPP 1995).

The woodland/savannah type of vegetation, which originally covered about 30 percent of the country in the semi-arid and sub-humid regions, has now been reduced to 7.5 percent of the total area. This vegetation formation had a biomass stock of 30 m3 per hectare, which has now been reduced to 10 m3/per hectare as a result of continuous cutting of trees for fuelwood, construction purposes and frequent forest fires. Some of the plants have adaptive mechanisms that allow them either to survive fire or to regenerate after a fire.

Fire environment and fire regimes in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has a total land area of about 1.1 million km2. There is a strong correlation between temperature and altitude. The rainfall pattern is strongly influenced by two moist air streams: the southwest monsoon originating in the Atlantic, and the southeast monsoon originating in the Indian Ocean. There are three rainfall patterns identified. A bimodal pattern with short duration rains in March-April and long duration rains from June-September is found in northeastern and central eastern Ethiopia. A bimodal pattern with seasons of equal length, or with long duration rains in March-May and short duration rains in October-November, is found in southeastern and southern Ethiopia. A unimodal pattern with rains between April and October is found in southwestern and western Ethiopia. Rainfall is generally higher in the unimodal rainfall area and increases with altitude up to about 3 500 m above sea level.

Temperature is inversely related to altitude, with mean annual temperatures of 22o C to 27o C in the lowlands and between 10o C to 22o C in the highlands up to about 3 000 m a.s.l. This information is very important for planning forest fire control operations.

There are no forest fire statistics permitting an analysis of the causes, risks and extent of damage. However, general information on the causes and season are available that could reveal information concerning the timing of forest fires, which depends on the climate.

Every year, just before the short rainy season starts, very large areas of lowland woodland and grassland formations are affected by fires, particularly in the drier parts of the country.

The effects of forest fires differ depending on environmental factors and the type of vegetation. People start most fires. In the eastern and northeastern parts of the country, the natural vegetation ranges from desert to grassland and woodland formations. Grazing is the dominant form of land use. The vegetation is deliberately burned in order to induce sprouting of fresh vegetation for cattle grazing. Sixty-five percent of the land area is subjected to this practice. Use of fire as an aid to hunting, to control tsetse fly and manage tick populations are among the other major causes of forest fires in the lowland areas.

In the highlands, where there is rapid population growth, fires are used as the major tool to clear forest land and convert it to agricultural use. Smoking out wild bees in order to gather honey is also another cause of forest fires. The traditional practice of using fire as a means to prepare land for agriculture and the enormous demographic growth exacerbate the impact of forest fires.

In general, the causes of forest deterioration by fire are rooted in (1) poverty caused by a high rate of population growth and economic depression, (2) low agricultural productivity, (3) the insufficient attention of government policies to the long-term implications of a deteriorating natural resource base, and (4) the use of many of the forest areas as a common property resource regardless of their suitability to sustain agriculture.

Major wildfire impacts on people, property and natural resources that occurred historically

Fire is mainly used to clear land for cultivation, and the timing is synchronized with the dry season before the onset of rains in March-April. Fire is used at least once a year in January and February so that the land is ready for planting in April. Honey collection takes place in April/May and October/November. Fire is used in the lowland areas, where livestock raising is an important part of the economy, to control tsetse fly or ticks, or to induce sprouting of fresh grazing or browsing vegetation and grasses. Fire is also used to smoke bees out of the hives in the process of harvesting honey.

In Ethiopia, accumulation of fuel load and flammability attain peak values in January and February of each year.

The timing of forest fires and the extent of effects depend on the type of economic activity of the area and the type of forest formation. Pastoralists usually set fires in their rangeland in order to produce fresh grazing and browsing material for their livestock. Thus, fire is used as a management system in the lowland areas where the woodlands and bushlands are located. It is used for the protection of animals from ticks and tsetse fly.

There were forest fires in early 1984 that affected a considerable forest area. The forest area affected by type is summarized as follows:

  • High forest: 209 913 ha
  • Bush land: 41 785 ha
  • Plantation forests: 2 600 ha
  • Bamboo forest: 33 316 ha
  • Woodlands: 20 584 ha

Major wildfire impacts in the 1990s

There were no major wildfire reports for the 1990s (Table 1). A major wildfire episode affected the afro-montane forests in 2000, mainly in Oromiya Regional State. The total forest area affected by fire was ca. 95 000 ha. The firefighting operations in March-April 2000 involved more than 169 589 people (villagers, army, volunteers from Addis Ababa) and a group of foreign experts (Goldammer 2000, Goldammer and Habte 2000).

The Borana and Bale Administrative Zones reported the following losses of non-forest resources:

  • 1 226 hectares of wild coffee
  • 112 houses of the farming community who live in the natural forest
  • 12 quintals of coffee
  • 12 storage facilities of farmers for grain
  • 8 029 bee hives
  • 352 domestic animals (300 sheep, 32 hens, 9 cattle, 10 camels, etc.)
  • 335 wild animals (antelope, lion, colobus monkeys, etc)

Fire management organization

At the federal level, forest protection, including fire issues, falls within the responsibilities of the Forestry and Wildlife Conservation Team of the Natural Resources Management and Regulatory Department of the Ministry of Agriculture. The federal responsibilities are not to supervise the regions’ actions, but rather to develop policies that will give the framework under which regions can develop their own regional policies. Consequently, policies could vary between regions. The federal government can give help upon request (technical assistance).

At the regional level, the regional Bureau of Agricultural Development is responsible for forest fire protection. However, there are no special arrangements for fire management. It is at the regional level that actual operations for forest protection are undertaken. The regions manage their own budget, but there is federal funding for emergencies.

A recent initiative at the regional level is to prepare draft acts that that will include fire management issues.

There are no people trained and equipped for firefighting and fire prevention is mainly through education of farming communities about the usefulness of the forests and the damage resulting from forest fires. Monitoring of forested areas and implementation of preventive measures has had limited effect due to weak institutional arrangements. However, for a few of the forestry projects, forest management practices such as timely pruning and weeding operations, controlled grazing, reduction of combustible materials in plantation forests before the fire season, ground patrol and construction of fire breaks are employed. There are 58 National Forest Priority Areas (NFPA) identified as potential areas for conservation and development, but only two of these are organized for fire protection. There are forest protection committees established in each administrative zone, but these are not functional and effective. There is no budget allocated for fire prevention.

From the wildfire incidence in 2000, a National Committee for Fire Management was established at the federal level and a similar committee was also established at different levels in all zones where wildfires were reported. The committees are responsible for organizing and mobilizing local and international fire suppression resources that are indispensable for firefighting.

Wildfire database

Table 1. Forest fire statistics of Ethiopia for the period 1990-2000.

Year Total no. of fires on forest and other wooded lands Total area
Area of forest


1 072




1992 1




3 159



1 550


> 120

95 000

Source: paper records of the Ministry for Agriculture, Addis Ababa.

Average annual number of fires: There is usually one incidence of fire in Ethiopia, which is mainly in January, February and March before the onset of the rainy season.

Average annual fire size: There is no accurate information on annual fire extent available. However, from selected studies it is known that woodland and bushlands are burned annually to a large extent. Hence, the area burned annually amounts to millions of hectares.

Fire causes: Fires started by people account for 100 percent of the total fires. Of the human-caused fires, 20 percent are classified as arson and negligence and carelessness cause 80 percent. However, there is no research conducted on fire causes. These observations are based on personal experience in the field for the last 20 years.

Use of prescribed fire to achieve resource management objectives

In the lowland pastoral areas, which cover 60 percent of the total land area, controlled bush clearing for improved community based range management is practised. In addition, control of ticks and tsetse flies, which pose a serious problem to the livestock herds, is another positive effect of prescribed burning. Some of the traditional practices of the local people regarding prescribed burning are selective bush clearing, which is used to stimulate vegetative re-growth of grasses and many shrubs and trees during the dry season. They also use prescribed burning for increasing plant biomass and to control bush encroachment and favour the growth of the herbaceous layer, which is important for the nutrition of cattle, goats and sheep. They also use prescribed fire for the control of vectors of animal diseases.

Public policies

The lack of established ownership and open access has contributed to uncontrolled, illegal encroachment and clearing of forest land by frequent fires. Institutional arrangements are weak for monitoring forested areas and implementing preventive measures. There is a lack of clear land ownership rights to help insure local cooperation in such critical matters as forest fire prevention and control.

A general federal law gives responsibilities to the regions, including protection of the forest against insects, disease, fire, etc. There is a draft forest policy currently being reviewed by the Ministry of Agriculture (first draft in 1997). This policy document does not make special reference to fire issues.

After the large wildfires in early 2000 the Government of Ethiopia, supported by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit – GTZ) and the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) organized the Ethiopia Round Table Workshop on Forest Fire Management, which was held in Addis Ababa, 19-20 September 2000. The results of the workshop point toward the development of a national intersectoral strategic programme for fire management.

Sustainable land use practices used in Ethiopia to reduce wildfire hazards and wildfire risks

The major cause of forest fire is poverty, which is constantly fueled by a high rate of population growth in relation to low agricultural productivity. People usually look for new productive land and clearing of forests by setting fire is a means of land preparation. In order to alleviate this, the government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, has introduced an extension package programme in different agro-ecological zones to help boost agricultural production. The programme focuses on an integrated land management strategy.

There is a need to focus on increasing productivity on agricultural lands by providing better education and information to farmers and improving their performance.

The public needs to be educated to view forest fires as a threat to the national economy, since no forest fire prevention campaign can be successful without the general support of the local communities.

Community involvement in fire management activities

The development agents of the Ministry of Agriculture provide information to farmers on the impacts of wildfire on forest resources and its relation to the production system. They are informed and updated on the possible causes of fire and on precautions to be taken during the dry season.

The government and private radio channels, which disseminate agriculture-related programmes, provide educational messages to make the local farmers aware of possible fire impacts. They are also involved in firefighting through mobilization as legislation clearly states that all citizens have the obligation to cooperate in firefighting if fires occur in their surrounding area.

Local communities participate in firefighting activities. The number of people involved in firefighting in 2000 was estimated to be over 169 589.


Goldammer, J. G. 2000. The Ethiopia fire emergency between February and April 2000. Int. Forest Fire News No. 22, 2-8.

Goldammer, J. G., and T. Habte. 2000. Forest fire disasters: Early warning, monitoring, and response. Paper presented at the UN International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) Regional Europe – Africa Meeting, Hammamet, Tunisia, 15-19 November 2000.

MNEP. 1994. Ethiopian Forestry Action Program (EFAP), Addis Ababa.

WBISPP. 1995. Towards a Strategic Plan for the Sustainable Development and Conservation of the Woody Biomass Resources, Addis Ababa.

MOA. 2000. Proceedings of the Ethiopian Round Table Workshop on Forest Fire Management (in Press). Addis Ababa.

Contact address

M. Bekele and B. Mengesha
Ministry for Agriculture
P.O. Box 62347
Addis Ababa

Fax: ++251-1-518977
Tel: ++251-1-55085


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