Fire Situation in China (IFFN No. 26 – January 2002)

Fire Situation in China

(IFFN No. 26 – January 2002, p. 9-14 )

Fire Environment and Fire Regimes

China is a country that is by no means rich in forest resources. Its total forest cover is 158.9 million ha which cover 16.55 percent of the total land area. The potential timber supply is 11 267 million steres (m3) and the average forest area per capita is 0.128 ha.

The occurrence of forest fires varies from year to year depending on inter-annual climate variability. Furthermore, the variations of fire occurrence, fire size, and fire severity are closely related to the accumulation of combustible material in the forest. The major portion of forest fire occurrence is concentrated in a small number of regions (“High Fire Occurrence Regions”). Statistics reveal that the highest number and largest sizes of forest fires occur in the five provinces: Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou. In these provinces, the numbers of forest fires accounted for 42.5 percent of the whole country, and the damaged area accounted for 75 percent of the area affected by fire in the whole country during the period 1950-1998. Within the above mentioned provinces and in other forest zones the forest fire distribution is not even. Highest concentration is in more than 100 key counties (cities) of 16 key regions. This phenomenon results from the fact that these regions have a higher share of forest cover, are exposed to more climatic extremes, including extreme wind events, and are remote with limited access and fire management (prevention and control) facilities. In combination with the complexity of fire origins, the high combustibility of forests, and the difficulty to control wildfires, the probability of large forest fire occurrence in these regions is very high.
The number of forest fires is large in forests of the South while the damaged forest area is largest in the Northeast and Inner Mongolia. Because of the gentle topography, the broad trench and embankment, the linking (ecotones) between grassland and forest, and the influence of the monsoon in spring and autumn, forest fires in the Northeast and Inner Mongolia spread quickly and over large areas. Just because of the different characteristics of various forest regions, fire prevention methods and control measures are also different in the South and in the North.
The seasonality of high forest fire danger phases among the various forest regions is different. China lies in the northern hemisphere. Influenced by atmospheric circulation, climate, and monsoons patterns, the occurrence of forest fires in the Northeast, Inner Mongolia, the South, the Southwest (mainly in Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region), and the North-East have different fire-danger phases. This is due to such natural phenomena as drought, windiness, precipitation patterns, low temperature, and accumulated snow, all of which attribute to different fire-danger phases. These periods are synonymous with Fire Prevention Phases.

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

Statistical evidence reveals that the number of forest fires and the area affected by fires is subject to high variability. During the second half of last century more than 15 000 forest fires occurred and affected more than 20 million ha of forest lands. The most prominent fire years were 1951, 1955, 1956, 1961, 1962, 1972, 1976, 1977, 1979 and 1987.
In 1987, a large fire situation occurred in the Greater Xingan Mountains, Heilongjiang province. During these fires, 213 persons were killed and the burned area reached l.33 million ha. Of this area, 890 000 ha were damaged, with a loss of 39.6 million cubic meters of wood volume. Thus, the forest cover rate of these regions has decreased by 14.5 percent from 76 percent to 61.5 percent. The fires caused high mortality to large areas of young, mature, and overmature forest stands. The extreme fire severity not only led to the destruction of forest and forest floor cover, but also affected forest structure, biodiversity, micro- and macroclimate, and water regimes. It resulted in the reduction of the protection function of the forests, e.g. the protection of watersheds, soil conservation, and climate. Research revealed that the denudation of land surface resulted in changes of micro-climatic patterns, destruction of organic layers, and loss of water retaining capability.

Narrative summary of major wildfire impacts on people, property, and natural resources during the 1990’s

During the 1990s (1990-1999) an average annual number of 5 324 fires affected forests with an average annual area burned of 122 036 ha (non-forest lands are not included in this figure). Although the number of forest fires in the Northeast accounts for just five per cent of all forest fires in China, these fires involve as much as 60 percent of national fire losses. The South and Southwestern regions account for 95 percent of fires, but just 40 percent of total annual fire losses. Fire seasons peak in May and October in the Northeast, while in the Southwest the peak fire season is from January to April. Across China, humans cause more than 95 percent of forest fires. In the Northeastern forest regions, however, lightning accounts for up to 30 percent of fire occurrences in some years.

Fire management organization

As far as forest fires are concerned, the policy of ”take prevention first and extinguish fire second” should be followed. A nation-wide system of forest fire prevention and suppression needs to be established. The work of the country’s forest fire management program underwent a turn for the better after the very large forest fire in the Greater Xingan Mountains in 1987. In order to strengthen the leadership of forest fire management, Forest Fire Offices were set up successively in 30 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities. These offices are under the jurisdiction of the central government, and special working bodies were established accordingly.

Rules and regulations on forest fires

Clearly defined responsibilities of governments at different levels and of the different units in the forest regions are an important aspect of forest fire prevention. Through this system the fundamental and crucial problems in forest fire prevention have been tackled in the recent years, resulting in strengthening of forest fire prevention and a visible reduction of forest fire occurrence and damages. In the period 1960-1987, 16 000 forest fires damaged an area of 950 000 ha in the whole country, representing a forest damage rate of 8.5 percent. Compared with these figures, the number of forest fires, the damaged forest area, and the forest damage rate from 1988 to 1998 was cut down by 49 percent, 98 percent, and 95.4 percent, respectively.
Important steps were taken to revise and improve regulations on the use of fire in the agricultural and forestry sectors. Several important laws, decrees, regulations, and stipulations became effective after being passed by the local people’s congress, and promulgated by the governments. Many villages have developed community regulations and agreements and have strengthened forest fire management at the local level with successful achievements.

Special firefighting teams arranged

In the forest region of the Northeast and Inner Mongolia, permanent professional firefighting teams were established in every forest industrial enterprise and in large state forest complexes. In the collectively owned forest regions of the south, seasonal special firefighting teams, mainly consisting of military personnel, were set up. These special teams are guided and provided with equipment by the forest department, trained by people’s armed forces, and commanded by Forest Fire Prevention Headquarters.

Aerial forest fire protection

Aerial forest protection is an important part of forest fire prevention, detection, and suppression. The 14 aviation stations are subordinate to the Northwest Aerial Forest Protection Centre and the Southwest Aerial Forest Protection Station, respectively. They are responsible for patrol, protection, and aerial fire suppression, including the application of chemical retardants, in the Northeast, Inner Mongolia, Southwest, and other remote forest regions.

The development of a fire management infrastructure

The development of infrastructure is the way to improve forest fire prevention and suppression efforts. The conflagration of the Greater Xingan Mountains in 1987 educated people that the investment must be made, and organisational improvements should be made as quickly as possible. From 1988 on, the state has appropriated special fund every year, and provinces, prefectures, and counties take out their related necessary funds at a certain rate. These new developments since 1987 have played an important role in preventing and extinguishing forest fires.

Table 1. Wildland fire database (number of fires and area burned) in China: Total number of fires and area burned in China between 1990 and 1999 on forest, other wooded lands, and other land. The management of the wildland fire database is computerized. There is no website to access the fire database.

Use of prescribed fire to achieve resource management objectives

Following the experiences in prescribed burning in other countries, a number of experiments were carried out in China. In the early 1980s it was concluded on the base of scientific research that prescribed burning not only prevents high-intensity forest fires, but also helps to improve the growing conditions of forest trees.
Prescribed burning is being used in the forest regions of the Northeast, Inner Mongolia, and Sichuan. The major goal of prescribed burning is to reduce the load of fuels (combustible materials) which, in conjunction with the meteorological factors, are determining the intensity and severity of a forest fire. Because of this, no large forest fires occurred in these regions recently.
In some provinces or regions, such as Jilin province, the reduction of large-scale burning of forests in the past ten years and more have led to an increasing accumulation of combustible materials inside the forest. This situation has led to a high hazard of very large and destructive forest fires. Thus, the use of prescribed fire to reduce forest fuels is of significant importance for preventing very large and destructive wildfires.
Prescribed burning operations observe meteorological factors (wind, temperature, humidity and relative humidity), moisture of fine fuels, and stability of the atmosphere. Downed woody materials and the litter layer are burned out under control. In the Northeast forest region, the most common method is to burn after frost, or immediately after snow melt. Forest sites with difficult topographical characteristics can be treated by prescribed fire efficiently.
There are also plans to use herbicides to clear the weeds in the young or mid-age forests in the southern broadleaf forests, or in the broadleaf/conifer forest ecotones. This method will reduce fire danger levels by accelerating the decomposition of flammable materials.
Besides the prescribed burning techniques, the establishment of green belts and firebreaks have proven to effectively prevent the spread of wildfires. Aerial patrols and increased use of watchtowers combined with satellite remote sensing monitoring and satellite communications have resulted in earlier fire detection and initiation of firefighting activities. In the Daxinganling forest region (Northeast China), a lightning detection and monitoring system has been established to identify and locate fires started by lightning.

Construction of greenbelts (fuel breaks)

The construction of fuel breaks is a long term effort that can reduce the impacts of future fires. Their benefits will accrue over a long period of time. Fuelbreaks on which fire-resistant trees, fruit trees, and other economic plants are grown are designed to slow down or halt the spread of a wildfire. These systems can produce economic benefits to the area, conserving the water and soil, and improving ecological conditions. The change of tree and other vegetation composition on fuel breaks can prevent the spread of forest disease or insect pests. Economic, socio-economic, and ecological benefits all can be achieved through a network of fuel breaks. The total length of greenbelt fuel breaks in China at the end of the year 2000 is 172,100 km.

Public policies affecting wildfire impacts

A nation-wide publicity and education campaign helps in raising awareness of the importance of fire management. Activities include billboards and slogans, and the use of radio and television to reach all communities. These fire prevention awareness measures are implemented in accordance with fire weather predictions.
During the fire season, fire prevention efforts are intensified. Planning and financial departments at all levels increase funding to expand and strengthen fire management infrastructure.

Community involvement in fire management activities

Much progress has been made over the last forty years in forest fire prevention in China. However, problems and differences do exist in this field among the different provinces or districts, reflected mainly in the form of unbalanced development, poor fundamental facilities, inefficient bottom-level organizational work, and incompleteness of networks. Compared with other countries, China has to catch up with prevention technologies. The current situation is characterized by insufficient capabilities to predict and control forest fires. As for administrative management, striking progress has been achieved. A framework of a forest fire prevention system has been established based on administrative leadership, regulations, information, firefighting units, socio-economic cooperation and fundamental firefighting facilities. Therefore, the frequency of destructive forest fires and area burned has dropped sharply.
Following increases in population, science and technology will be challenged in future years to improve capabilities in fire prevention, fire prediction, and fire control. Through sustained efforts, higher levels of fire prevention work will be achieved and the annual burned area could be less than 0.1 percent of the total forest cover of China.


IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Shu Lifu and Tian Xiaorui
Division of Forest Fire Research, Chinese Academy of Forestry
P.O.Box 8
Beijing 100091

Fax: ++86‑10‑6288-9555
Tel: ++86‑10‑6288-9515


Chinese Forestry Statistics (1990-1999)
Chinese Forestry Press (1991-2000)

Figure 1.Map of the forest region of the Greater Xingan Mountains (Daxinganling), Heilongjiang Province, showing the area of 1.33 million ha. damaged by the 1997 fires. Source: GFMC archive.

Figure 2.Typical fire-influenced pattern of montane-boreal forests in the Greater XinganMountains (Daxinganling), Heilongjiang Province. The light-colored trees represent pioneer species (birch, poplar, aspen) that colonize burned areas. Groups of old pines that have survived initial fires will also withstand future fires. Thus, re-current short-interval fires will maintain the fire-induced landscape mosaic. Photo: GFMC.

Figure 3. Typical greenbelt fuel breaks in the Southwest of China. The total length of greenbelt fuel breaks in China at the end of the year 2000 is 172,100 km. Photo: GFMC.

Figure 4. Typical interface between a greenbelt fuel break (right) and the wildland vegetation (left). The greenbelts are built and maintained to provide a shaded, moist micro-climate and little to none fuels in the litter and grass-herb layers. Photo: GFMC.

Country Notes
IFFN No. 26

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