Update on the Forest Fires in Ethiopia: 6 March 2000

Update on the Forest Fires in Ethiopia

6 March 2000

First information on the forest fires in Ethiopia has been reported to the GFMC last week. On Thursday 2 March 2000 an international fire emergency response team was set up by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) supported by the Global Fire Monitoring Center. The following recommendations were given to the Government of Ethiopia today on Monday 6 March 2000.

Recommendations for Wildfire Response, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 6 March 2000
submitted to the Government of Ethiopia by the International Fire Emergency Advisory Group

(see Remark No.1 below)

Johann G. Goldammer (Global Fire Monitoring Center – GTZ / Germany)
Gunther Haase (GTZ / Germany)
Johann Heine (South Africa)
Mike Calvin (South Africa / USA)
Deon Brits (South Africa)

1. Rationale – a situation assessment in brief

The overall situation assessment has been presented to the Government of Ethiopia on 5 March 2000 based on the figures on fire damages recorded by local authorities and own ground and aerial surveys (see Remark No.2 below). It was agreed among all parties that the damage assessment of the authorities refer to areas which are under direct control and access. Most likely the damages caused by wildfires escaping from land-use fires are conservative. Aerial impressions collected during survey flights on 3-5 March lead to the conclusions that several ten thousands hectares of natural mountain forest have been affected by fire. Numerous fires continued to burn in the last days. Currently there is no reliable damage survey or monitoring system in place.

The quick-response of the mission to explore the fire situation did not allow an in-depth investigation of the role of natural and anthropogenic fires in the montane forests of Ethiopia. At this stage the international fire team knows the results of a restricted number of previous investigations which have been conducted in the area. Concluding from this literature, the mountain forests (all broadleaved and mixed broadleaved-coniferous montane forests) represent hotspots of biodiversity are neither adapted nor dependent on recurrent fire. This statement does not exclude the fact that fires have occurred in the past and that burned forest patches have recovered over long fire-free periods. There are indications that ericaceous vegetation growing above the forest limit show adaptations to fire which seems to be an important factor in the dynamics of this vegetation type.

The current demographic and socio-economic conditions have led to an unprecedented pressure on the remaining mountain forest ecosystems. The reasons for forest clearing by fire are obvious.

Regardless of any uncertainties on the short- and long-term ecological role of fire in these forests all measures have to be taken to protect those forests from conversion and wildfires. The extended drought in the region has aggravated the situation and calls for immediate response.

For this reason it is necessary to immediately take all necessary steps to stop further forest destruction both short-term and long-term. The mobilization of national and international efforts in fighting the current fires is an important step towards a clear commitment to save the endangered forest resources of the country.

The international fire experts agree that after completion of the immediate fire fighting response medium- and long-term fire management programmes must follow on the base of a national land-use and fire policy.

2. Definition of priorities for international assistance in immediate fire-fighting response

Two main fire regions have to be addressed. First, the fires starting in the vicinity of settlements are mainly conversion fires and wildfires escaping from conversion fires. Prevention and suppression of these fires need national and international support both in terms of providing technical advice and logistics, including appropriate technologies. Those fire problem areas which are located in accessible terrain or can be reached in reasonable travel distances are currently taken care by the local population, volunteers and the Armed Forces.

The most alarming fires are burning in the closed mountain forest sites which so far have been excluded from agricultural and pastoral use and the use of fire. During the last weeks large-scale wildfires have spread to these forests and have caused extremely high damage. These fires burn in extremely inaccessible and very steep terrain. The fire sites cannot be reached by ground transport. The only option to suppress these fires is by aerial (helicopter) deployment of specialized fire fighter crews.

Since fighting of any of these fires in extreme terrain involves high investments in terms of finances, personnel and risks, there is no way to attempt extinguishing all detected fires.

Priority areas have to be determined and clearly demarcated. This requires mapping and prioritization.

However, the fire experts recommend to set up an international fire suppression team to contain these priority fires as soon as possible. It is recommended to recruit finances, personnel and logistics on 7 March 2000. The international fire brigades shall be reinforced by the Ethiopian Armed Forces and become operational by mid of the second week of March.

3. Uncertainties and risks

At the beginning of the second week of March it is still uncertain when the rainy season will start. It is possible that the onset of rains will coincide with the beginning of the fire-fighting operations.

The deployment of fire fighters by helicopter in extreme terrain and under conditions of largely unknown fuels and fire behaviour imposes a high risk on all field personnel.

4. Response requirements

The minimum requirements for using international fire suppression crews in the burning closed mountain forests are as follows:

Phase I: 06-10 March 2000

From South Africa

  • 4 airborne fire suppression crews (5-6 persons each)
  • Handtools (rakes, fire beaters, backpack pumps), two times the number of crew members *(for equipping reinforcement by Ethiopian Armed Forces members)
  • One helicopter bucket (if desired and prevailing difficulties of water supply)
  • One C-206 fire spotter plane (with pilot and aerial fire boss)
  • Daily monitoring of fires and weather in order to anticipate worsening conditions

From the survey carried out, helicopter-based fire fighting appears not to be a viable option due to limited availability of surface water. However, the request for support from South Africa needs to be reassessed after precise information on available surface water is compiled. It needs to be emphasised that such operations are only economically feasible and effective if water is available within 10 kms from any fire. The mission team also would like to stress the fact that aerial water bombing alone is not sufficient to extinguish fires. It rather has to be seen as a support measure to ground-based fire fighting.

The Mi-17 helicopters are very well suited for water bombing activities. Since these helicopters are locally available, it is recommended to import specialised equipment and crew, rather than bringing in additional helicopters. This would save time and costs and at the same time local capacities can be built through training of local helicopter crews.

From Ethiopia

  • 2 MI-17 helicopters with crews (it is recommended that these crews should be specifically trained for fire fighting activities by an experienced instructor through on-job training)
  • Fuel supply for the duration of the operations
  • A group of 20 highly motivated and physically fit members of the Army for aerial crew reinforcement. Condition: English language skills. Equipment: Armed Forces radio communication and arms for on-site safety.
  • Logistical Support team


  • One Fire Boss/Incident Commander
  • Additional handtools for ground fire crews in nearby areas
  • Continuation of satellite-derived delivery of fire maps

An Incident Command System will be set up on 6 March.

Phase II: 10-17 March 2000

Further requirements (reinforcement / exchange of international fire crews, logistical and equipment support) to be determined around 12-13 March i.a.w. with fire conditions and fire-weather forecasts.


1. Preliminary damage assessment on the ground
The following damage assessment in accessible areas were provided by the local administration on 4 March 2000:
In one administration area the fire has affected a total of 26,630 ha of broadleaved-coniferous forests on the territory of 34 villages. This number  includes 15,030 ha forest, 5600 ha bamboo forest, and 5900 ha ericceous vegetation. The total number also includes 997 ha natural coffee burned. The total forest area affected by fire in all adiministration zones concerned reportedly exceeded 50,000 ha. Mobilization for fire fighting: more than 12,000 people (villagers, volunteers) and Armed Forces.

2. On 6 March 2000 the international fire response team was reinforceed by a U.S fire specialist, Mr. James Sorenson.

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Fig.1. Shaded relief map of Ethiopia
(source: The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection)

et_03062000_1a.jpg (19598 Byte)

Fig.2.  Satellite imagery (NOAA AVHRR) of the Ethiopian fire scene on 2 March 2000. Single red pixels show land-use fires and wildfires. The fire shown on top of the mountain at the right side of the image shows the critical high-elevation forest area threatened by fire. Larger accumulations of pixels are either caused by sunglint or by solar reflection. Source: NOAA, thanks to the liaison efforts of Janice Sessing, NESDIS-NOAA.
(source: NOAA/OSEI)

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Fig.3 & 4 DMSP scene of East Africa and a closeup, 2 March 2000.
The red dots represent active fires. Land signature: brown; water: blue; clouds: grey; stable lights (cities): cyan.
(Fig.3 upper left corner 20 N, 22 E lower right corner 0 N, 50 E;
Fig 4 upper left corner 9 N, 38 E lower right corner 5 N, 42 E)
(source: DMSP)

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Fig.5. Aerial view of wildfire burning in the montane broadleaved forest of Bale region, Ethiopia, 5 March 2000.
Photo: Johan Heine, Int. Fire Response Team

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Fig.6. Fire damage is difficult to see through the canopy of the extremely fire-sensitive forest: See white ash in the lower part of the picture. Trees begin to die off days and weeks after the fire.
(Photo: Johan Heine, Int. Fire Response Team)

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Fig.7. Fire damage on extremely steep high-mountain slopes. The intensity of upslope fires is extreme and leads to high fuel consumption and vegetation removal.
(Photo: Johan Heine, Int. Fire Response Team)

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Fig.8. Similar to figure 4.
(Photo: Johan Heine, Int. Fire Response Team)

German experts fly in to tackle Ethiopia blaze (publihsed by PlanetArk 6 March 2000)

ADDIS ABABA – A team of German firefighters flew to southern Ethiopia in an attempt to tackle two bushfires that have destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of virgin forest, state radio reported.
The experts, who will fly over the fires before deciding on how to bringthem under control, were the first to respond to Ethiopia’s appeal forinternational help.
One fire in the Bale region has already destroyed more than 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of virgin forest and natural coffee forest, and is now approaching an important national park in southern Ethiopia, home to several of the world’s rarest mammal species.
The 4,000 sq km (1,500 sq mile) Bale Mountains Park is home to half of the 400 Simien foxes in the world, as well as two other species found only in the Horn of Africa country – the Mountain Nyala and Menelik’s Bushbuck
“The fire has already approached the vicinity of the park and could engulf the whole mountain unless steps are taken to stop it,” Tesfaye Hundesa, manager of Ethiopia’s Wildlife Conservation Department, said.
Another fire fanned by gusty winds in the nearby Borena region along the Kenyan border has destroyed more than 23,000 hectares (57,000 acres) of forest.
More than 150 people have been arrested on suspicion of starting the fires, which have followed two years of drought in the southern part of the country.
A team of South African firefighters is also expected in Ethiopia in the next few days.

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