Mozambique: Fire Situation (IFFN No. 25)

Fire Situation in Mozambique

(IFFN No. 25, July 2001, p. 22-27)

Fire environment, fire regimes and the ecological role of fire

The natural vegetation cover, which accounts for 78% of the country’s area, varies from evergreen to deciduous, from mountainous, to lowland, gallery and mangrove and from forest to edaphic grasslands.

In a comprehensive description of fire effects on the major vegetation types in Mozambique (de Campos Andrada 1951), six eco-types are recognised, namely:

  • Moist (hygrophile) forests in Milange, Gurué, Tacuane, etc. The forest in this moist environment used to be thick and well developed but now openings promote fire events.
  • Mesophile forest at medium altitude characterised by a habitat, which is neither very moist nor very dry. Vegetation is composed principally of Brachystegia and Julbernardia globiflora and it is commonly open with frequent meadows where grass grows tall and thick. Fires in these openings can be very destructive, particularly to young regenerations when frequent burning occurs in late dry seasons. Older trees are frequently partially burnt and sometimes entirely.
  • Low altitude dry (xerophile) vegetation is found relatively close to the littoral zone where the habitat is characterised by strong droughts. The timber rich forest in places such as Derre and Buzi is deciduous. Fire is very destructive to the forest due to the amount of grass.
  • Dry to arid forest of Colophospermum mopane and/or Acacia spp. is associated with low and scarce to non-existing annual grass. Forest fires there are less frequent and less damaging.
  • Plateau of Angonia with little or no forest
  • Edaphic grass in Marromeu and Chinde districts of Sofala and Zambezia

Mozambique is dominated by two main seasons. The hot and wet season lasts from November to April and is followed by the cool and relatively dry period between May and October. Forest fires are linked to the seasons and sporadic fires start in April each year at the beginning of the dry season, increasing in intensity by late August to October when the vegetation is completely dry, until the first rains in November or December. The size of burning also follows a similar trend. The average size of early fires from April to June is relatively small compared to that of late dry season due to the high water content of the still green vegetation; as grass layers and leaf litter become drier, burning intensifies and spreads.

According to satellite interpretation in November 1996 (Taquidir 1996) 39.6% of the country are affected by fire every year. The northwestern and central parts of the country are the most affected. 73.6% of these areas are burnt annually. The coastal strip with its evergreen to semi-evergreen coastal vegetation has the lowest burning intensity in the country (4.6%).

The study shows also that fires have been affecting the low and open woody vegetation such as shrub (57.4%), wooded grassland (44.5%), thicket (41.2%), agriculture lands (49.7%). Burning in the forestry formations classified as LF1, LF2 and LF3 oscillates between 27.5 and 37.6% annually.

The data on forest burning quoted above is comparable to that of 40% reported in the “Manual de Legislação Florestal”. The latter information was gathered from a sample of aerial photographs taken at different dates in Mozambique, while the recent data were measured on coverage of Landsat TM images recorded between 1989 and 1992.

Both data sets possibly under-estimated the real size of annual burning, since the early fires are not easy to detect in remote sensing material.

The countryside in Mozambique is poorly managed due to resource constraints and has a very low road density. The natural forest has never been put under any sort of management. The road network is insignificant and firebreaks do not exist. Between rivers and streams, the forest is often composed of single blocks ranging from few hundreds to many thousands of hectares. When a fire is set in a forest area, it sweeps the whole area until a river opening halts it. The extent of a fire in any area depends, therefore, on the month of burning, the extent of a single block of vegetation, the wind speed and direction and on other weather conditions such as rain and temperature. Depending on these conditions, a single fire can burn from a few hectares to many thousands of hectares.

With the increase of populations in Mozambique, the requirement for agriculture land as well as for forestry and wildlife products had drastically increased thus increasing pressure on limited resources. Fires have became one of the main tools of man for land clearing for cultivation and house construction, hunting, timber exploitation, acquisition of other goods and services from the forest including charcoal production and honey collection, and for protecting resources from wild animals. These activities, as well as accidents with cigarettes, may lead to uncontrollable wildfires.

Narrative summary of major wildfire impacts on people, property, and natural resources

The scarcity of natural regeneration and the rapid population growth in the rural areas associated with an increased intensity of agriculture activities in the field are indications of a mounting trend of forest fires.

Fires have an unmistakable destructive role on natural vegetation and on bio-diversity as whole. They affect a wide range of aspects of environment as well as peoples welfare.

Loss in standing timber, very much needed by the national economy, is significant (no figures available).

Natural regeneration is affected by fires, which occur yearly and at increasing rates and if natural regeneration is not sufficient due to increasing fire intensity and logging, a number of species will be threatened e.g. Pterocarpus angolensis, Millettia stuhlmannii, Milicia excelsa, Androstachys jonsonii, Erythrephleum suaveolens, Burkea africana, Dalbergia melanoxylon, etc.

Indications are that forests are becoming less rich in species diversity, more fragmented and poor species associations are taking place. The remnants of forests, are also in the process of loosing their characteristics, various sites are now fragmented forests intermingled with other forms of vegetation. The forests may be shrinking due to the loss of trees by burning incursions. Climbers are disappearing and grass and other herbs are invading the ground. The opening created in the forest canopies exposes shade demanding plants and trees to more light and consequently to physiological disturbances and death. Pioneer trees, which germinate under intensive sunlight, invade the space created after elimination of shade demanding trees by fire.

Impoverished soils produce less biomass and render natural regeneration less successful. Less grass cover exposes the soil surface to torrent runoff and erosion of upper layers. Less water infiltration keeps the water table deeper, which makes the growth period shorter and eliminates drought susceptible vegetation. Impoverished vegetation cover also disturbs wildlife habitat.

Vegetation species in Miombo woodland have developed survival strategies against forest fires but there is a threshold of tolerance. Intensive and frequent fires exceed the defensive capacity of any vegetation. Perennial plants can have their root system alive for years while above ground parts are constantly burnt.

In Cheringoma area for instance, the forestry vegetation exhibits different physiognomies including: (a) forests with multi-layers, climbers and lack of grass layer; (b) woodland with open canopy having less than three layers and abundant grass layer and; (c) all appearances in between. The succession from forest to woodland in this area is widespread and apparently a result of fires. For edaphic reasons, woodlands may also occur in the area independently of fire effects.

Fire management organization

Although fire has been recognised as a serious problem affecting social, economic and environmental levels, the Government institutions, especially those specialised in forestry research, have not yet taken any action to study and contain this problem. While the forestry administration has been strengthening itself over the last two decades, forest fires continue to ravage the resources and contribute to significant changes in the ecosystems.

Wildfire database

Table 1 provides a summary of the land area affected by wildland fires. The data are based on the aforementioned case studies and assessments.

Tab. 1. Wildfire database for Mozambique 1990-1999 based on case studies and other reports (Saket 1999)


Total No. of Fires on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land

Total Area Burned on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land

Area of Forest Burned

Area of Other Wooded Land and Other Land Burned

Human Causes

Natural Causes

Unknown Causes

No. ha ha ha No. No. No.
























Trends of forest fires

Data collected on forest fires using aerial photographs taken during the period of 1950 to 1970 is comparable to that from Landsat images recorded in 1989-92. Both studies were carried out to determine the extent of annual fires. The two periods were characterised by similar political events. The first period covers the liberation war when a large proportion of the local population had left their areas of origin. The second was marked by the civil war, which affected all the country and disrupted population distribution, with displacement of the rural population to refugee camps along security safe corridors and to neighbouring countries. In spite of the exodus of the local people from their areas of origin during the eighties, wildfires continued to sweep over 40% of the country. The question now is what will be the trend of forest fires after the return of the local people has been completed to their areas of origin?

Information on forest fires from the previous decades is not available or is scarce and poor. A few sporadic publications are available in DNFFB from colonial times but these only served to create public awareness.

Fire Management and use of prescribed fire to achieve resource management objectives

In a recent report on the fire situation in Mozambique Saket (1999) stresses that fire management is the most important component in any technical proposal for forest management planning in Mozambique, owing to the degree to which fire is conditioning the flora and to the damage it causes annually. The role of the local people in fire management is also central to any Government fire control strategy or plan, if sustainable timber exploitation may be reached and the forest will continue to provide the people’s needs in various forestry products and services.

Complete exclusion of fires from the forest is very likely an unachievable attempt. In the fire-conditioned forestry ecology, complete exclusion of fire will probably lead to different species mix, especially in the littoral and more particularly in the Cheringoma area, where forest physiognomy will likely regain ground.

Controlled fires in the Cheringoma, by reducing their frequencies and limiting their occurrences in early dry season (May-June) are also likely to lead the natural flora to new compositions and new vegetation associations with different limits. It will save large proportion of the new regeneration from destruction.

Thus, the following fire management directives are recommended:

  • The forestry services at national, provincial, district and locality levels should campaign for control of fires every year before the end of the wet season. Meetings with local community leaders and farmers should be held every year in February-March to expose the fire consequences on the people’s well being and the Government strategy for the combat of fire, introduce the fire control techniques and inform of the legislative implications.
  • Legislation should encompass fire control measures as well as punitive measures in case of infractions and recidivism.
  • Use of fire around households and cultivation fields within or in the vicinity of the forest should be limited to wet seasons and to early dry seasons (January-June).
  • Areas set on fire should be separated from the forest by firebreaks not less than 5m wide and should be monitored by the person who set it until its full extinction. Fires propagated to the forest from where it was set should be communicated to the local authorities for records. Any fire which reached the forest and expanded in it and not reported to the relevant authorities should be investigated and its author be kept responsible for it according to the legislation in force.
  • Making fire in the forest during the period extending from July to December should be completely forbidden. Fires in that period expose their authors to judiciary measures in accordance with the legislation in force.
  • Making fire out of the fire period for any reason (timber exploitation, stimulate germination of fire demanding seeds, etc.) should be authorised by the forestry and wildlife authorities. Intervals between two successive fires on the same area should not descend below a minimum of 8 years. Fire should be restricted to the area of interest.
  • All forest roads should be graded in May-June every year to play the role of fire breaks.
  • Limits of timber as well as wildlife concession areas should follow natural boundaries (rivers, streams, water divide, etc). Concessions not separated by natural openings such as rivers should be delimited by 10 meters artificial firebreaks graded or weeded annually.
  • Fire Control Units should be set up with the mandate to campaign for forest fire control, apply legislation when is necessary and implement the fire prevention techniques.
  • Natural forest should be put under management system, where management plans have to be prepared where fire management should be incorporated that includes subdividing the area into compartments separated by firebreaks. The participatory and integrated management plans will alleviate the state responsibilities in fire control by involving the private sector and local communities.

The need to integrated the use of prescribed fir in forest and other vegetation management is underscored by Saket (1999) who recommends prescribed burning at the levels of a concession area (Tab.2).

Tab. 2. Recommendations for fire management (fire control and prescribed burning) at the levels of a concession area (Saket 1999)

Forest types

Fire management

Closed forest

No fire. In case it happens extinguish as soon as possible

Open forest

Periodic burning is desirable

– Natural regeneration

Burn every 8 years in early dry season

– Late sapling and thicket height

Burn every 4 years in early dry season

– Fire declared in shorter period in open forest should be extinguished as soon as possible

Burn annually in early dry season. Elimination of grass reduces the fire hazards in the surrounding forests

Public policies affecting wildfires and fire management

From the early forties, the foresters in Mozambique have joined their colleagues in other parts of Africa in the long debate on social and environmental roles of the bush fires. They have expressed concern on the trends and sequels of fires and they put forward ideas for their regulation and control. It has then been suggested that:

  • fires should only be started when there is urgent need for it;
  • fires should be only started with permission from the relevant authorities;
  • farmers and local people should take appropriate measures to avoid fires from encroaching into the forest areas;

The 1921 forestry legislation prohibited making fires and clearing forestry vegetation under the shifting cultivation system. In a decree of 1928 the Governor of Mozambique underlined the prohibition of use of fire in the forests but with apparently less emphasis. Article13 of the decree stipulated that the local authorities should avoid, whenever possible, big fires and itinerant agriculture.

However, forest fires are not properly featured in the Government policy for the sector. The forestry legislation, which is the first level resources management tool for Government policy implementation fell short of expectations with respect to concrete measures to be taken for the nation-wide combat of fires and setting up a widely accepted and effective fire control system.


The country brief is based on a report by Saket (1999) in which additional bibliographic sources are provided.


Campos Andrada, E. 1951. O problema das queimadas em Moçambique.

Saket, M. 1999. Tendencies of forest fires in Mozambique. Annex 4 to “Proposal of a model of integrated forest management plan for the timber concession of Maciambose Cheringoma, North of Sofala. Republica de Moçambique, Ministério da Agricultura e Pésca, Direcção Nacional de Florestas e Fauna Bravia, ADB/ETC UK LTD, Beira.

Taquidir, M. 1996. Quantificação das queimadas nos diferentes tipos de vegetação em Moçambique.


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