GFMC: Fires in Central – Eastern Africa, 22 January 2000

Fires in Central – Eastern Africa: Background information

These reports are part of the Special Report on Forest Fires of the UN-FAO Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) 2000. The complete report is currently prepared by the GFMC and the FAO.


The fire environment
Climate and fire regimes
The dry season starts two to three weeks after the rains end in Northern Sudan, i.e. November to April/May. Tall and short grasses are desiccating increasingly during the dry season. An increased wildfire hazard is associated with low humidity, high fuel loads and the presence of moving graziers. Annual wildfires are common and spread rapidly due to NE winds and flat terrain. This is the case of central, western and southern Sudan. Repeated fires persist if the hot dry weather continues, i.e. late rains.

Ecological role of forest fires
In the high-rainfall savanna ecosystems of southern Sudan fires kill certain fire-sensitive trees, e.g. Isoberlinia doka, Daniellia oliveri, etc. and reduce the growth of other species. Fires may reduce gum yields from Acacia senegal by up to 50%. This is considered a big economic loss. In the average fires affect about 70% of the open rangelands.

Fires may also encourage the spread of some species, e.g. Acacia mellifera in central Sudan on clay soil where the “Acacia-grassland cycle” takes place: The occurrence of Acacia alternates with tall grasses: Acacia takes over if the fires are of low severity. Grasses become dominant with increasing fuel loads and high-intensity fires.

Impacts of wildfires
Lightning fires or fires caused by nomads often damage or destroy whole villages with huts that are built from grass and wooden materials. This problem is very common in central Sudan. Villagers in many instances are caught by surprise.

Wildfire database
Fires statistics for the time period 1980 to 1999 for the Sudan are lacking, except for limited incidents in Jebel Marra where some 3000 feddan (1 fed. = 0.42 ha) of Cypressus lusitanica have been destroyed in the 1990s. Usually large tracts are swept over by wild fires in the central and western Sudan. Presently nothing is known on the situation of southern Sudan where fires presumably are set by the army to improve visibility and control of the terrain. More than 60 million ha are affected annually.

Organizational set up
A fire management organization is not in place. However, the traditional system of constructing or maintaining forest fire lines (firebreaks) is adhered to through an annual program budgeted for, but necessary funds are always short. Also ground vegetation specially grasses may dry very fast after the end of the rainy season and the firebreak programme is never completed in time.

Fire lines, which usually form the boundaries of these reserves, protect Government forest reserves by law. The law states that fire lines should be at least 2m wide but these are inadequate and normally 5-8 m wide lines are cleared but still fires may jump over. Cleaning fire lines is an expensive operation.

In the colonial time and up to the end of sixties the Native Administration under the supervision of the Range and Pasture Department in close collaboration with the Forestry Department maintained a firebreak network extending North-South over North Kordofan and North Darfur to protect grazing lands and gum gardens. Usually 4-m wide lines are cleaned and spaced parallel to each other and separated by an 80 m. wide area which is burnt just before the end of the rains. This pattern is repeated systematically over the semi-arid lands. Early warning systems, detection and monitoring systems of forest fires are not available. No voluntary fire fighters are available but people and communities are obliged by the forest law to report and help in fighting wild forest fires. Fire research is absent.

Use of the prescribed fires
Prescribed burning is used in natural forests in Western Sudan (Jebel Marra) and used to be practiced as early burning in the southern Sudan but stopped due to the war. The method of backfiring for controlling a wildfire is forbidden except for certain conditions and under control of appropriately trained foresters.

Sustainable land use practices to reduce wildfires
Very wide fire lines (50 m) have been used to separate blocks of Eucalyptus plantations in the Khartoum green belt. Fuelbreaks (greenbelts) consisting of teak (Tectona grandis) were used in the south to protect fire-prone species. In traditional agricultural areas people and farmers are guided by extension workers to protect their villages and lands. At present there is no method other than burning to clear forest lands for cultivation under rains. The forest law however prevents wasteful burning and obliges cultivators to make use of cleared woody materials (shrubs, trees) by converting it into useful products, e.g. charcoal.

Public policy concerning fires
The forest policy of 1986 emphasizes the protection of forests against fires. The forest law of 1989 prohibits trespassing of people and their animals into reserved forests and prohibits the carrying of ignited material into the forests, making of fires for cooking or otherwise in or near forest and obliges people to help in extinguishing forest fires.

Reduction of fires will definitely conserve the natural resources of the country and will improve the growth of many tree species.

Needs of fire management can not be detailed here due to the complexity of different environmental conditions and the needs for different management techniques. The very large size of the country, the various local factors and weather conditions, the rapid trends towards repeated strong droughts and desertification, the increase in population and domestic animals, the displacement of rural people towards cities, the expansion of unplanned rain-fed cultivation, the poverty of the people, the unawareness of the decision makers regarding forest conservation – these are all major problems and impediments.

Sudan needs extension capabilities to teach the people how to protect their lands. Research is needed to find out safer methods for preparing agriculture or forest lands for cropping or forest plantations. Above all trained personnel and supporting equipment is needed for transport, detecting and fighting forest fires.

Goldammer, J.G. 1991. Integrated fire management, Jebel Marra Forest Circle (Sudan). Report for GTZ P.N. 86.2595.6-01.100.

Bayoumi, Abdel Aziz M. S. Sudan country report on forest fires (2000). International Forest Fire News No. 24 (in press)




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 livelihood for 85 percent of the total population. There are more than 7 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 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 fuel wood, both spurred by high rate of population growth. With a decline in fuel wood 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 the 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, the deforestation has accelerated to the extent that only about 2 percent (2.4 million ha) of the closed natural high forest remain 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 south and south-western parts of the country. These forests are dominated by broadleaved rain forests with an estimated area of 2.3 million ha and 0.1 million ha of coniferous forests which dominate the highlands (WBISPP 1995).

The wood land/savanna 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 30m3 per hectare which is now reduced to 10m3/per hectare as a result of the continuous cutting of trees for fuel wood, construction purposes, and frequent forest fires. Some of the plants have developed 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 found in north-eastern 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 south-eastern and southern Ethiopia. A unimodal pattern is found between April and October in south western and western Ethiopia. Rainfall is generally higher in the unimodal rainfall area and increases with altitude up to about 3500masl.

Temperature is inversely related to altitude with mean annual temperatures of 22oC to 27oC in the lowlands and between 10oC to 22oC in the highlands up to about 3000 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 which could reveal information concerning the timing of forest fires, which depends on the climate.

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

The effects of forest fires differ depending on environmental factors and the type of vegetation. Most fires are started by people. In the east and north-eastern parts of the country, the natural vegetation ranges from desert to grasslands and woodland formations. Grazing as the dominant form of land use. This vegetation is deliberately burned in order to induce the sprouting of fresh grazing vegetation for cattle. Sixty-five percent of the land area benefits from such a practice. Use of fire as an aid to hunting and to control tsetse fly and manage tick populations are among the 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 land. 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 cultivating 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 high rates of population growth and economic depression, (2) low agricultural productivity, (3) the insufficient attention of government policies to the longer term implications of a deteriorating natural resource base, and 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 happens at least once a year in January and February so that the land is ready for 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 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 rangelands 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 which 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. A major wildfire episode affected the afro-montane forests in the year 2000, mainly in Oromiya Regional State. The total forest area affected by fire was ca. 95,000 ha. The fire-fighting operations in March-April 2000 involved more than 76,000 people (villagers, army, volunteers from Addis Ababa) and a group of foreign experts (Goldammer 2000, Goldammer and Habte 2000).

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

  • 1226 hectares of wild coffee

  • 112 houses of the farming community who are based in the natural forest

  • 12 quintals of coffee

  • 12 storage facilities of farmers for grain

  • 8029 bee hives

  • 352 domestic animals (300 sheep, 32 hens, 9 cattle, 10 camels, etc.)

  • 335 wild animals (antelopes, lion, colobus monkey, etc)

Fire management organization
At federal level, forest protection, including fire issues, falls within the responsibilities of the Forestry and Wildlife Conservation Team of 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 which will give the framework under which regions can develop their own regional policies. Consequently policies could vary between regions. Federal can give help upon request (technical assistance).

At 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 fund for emergencies.

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

There are no trained and equipped people for fire fighting; and fire prevention is mainly through the mobilization of the farming communities. They are mobilized through education about the usefulness of the forests and damage resulting from forest fire. The weak institutional set-up of the sector at all levels to monitor all forested areas and implement preventive measures has limited the preventive mechanisms. However, for a few of the forestry projects, forest management practices like the timely pruning and weeding operations, controlled grazing, and reduction of combustible materials in plantation forests before the fire season, ground patrol and construction of fire breaks are practiced. 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 of year 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 had been reported. The committees are responsible for organizing and mobilizing local and international fire suppression resources that are indispensable for firefighting.

Wildfire data

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 on annual intervals at large extent. Hence, the annually burned area will amount 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 80 percent are caused by negligence and carelessness. 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 control bush encroachment and favour the growth of 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 which has contributed to the uncontrolled, illegal encroachment and clearing of forest land by frequent fires. Weak institutional set-up to be able to monitor all forested areas and implement preventive measures. Lack of clear land ownership rights for ensuring local cooperation in such critical matters as forest fire prevention and control.

A general federal law gives responsibilities to the region, 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) called for 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 towards 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 fuelled by high rates of population growth in relation to low agricultural productivity. People usually look for new productive land through the clearing of forests by setting fire as a means of land preparation. In order to alleviate this, the government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, has introduced an extension package program in different agro-ecological zones which help to boost agricultural production. The program focuses on an integrated land management strategy.

There is a need to focus on increasing productivity on agricultural lands through increasing inputs to farmers and improving the performance of farming and raising productivity.

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

Community involvement in fire management activities
The development agents of the Ministry of Agriculture provide information to the farmers on the impacts of wildfire on the 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 and make the local farmers aware of the possible fire impact. They are also involved in firefighting through mobilization as legislation clearly states that all citizens have the obligation to cooperate in firefighting if hazards occur in their surroundings.

Local communities participate in firefighting activities. The number of people involved in firefighting in the year 2000 is 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.

Bekele, M., and Berhanu. 2001. Forest fires in Ethiopia. International Forest Fire News No. 24 (in press)

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