Forest Fires in Algeria and the Case of the Domanial Forest of Bou-Taleb, Setif
(IFFN No. 22 – April 2000, p. 9-15)
Among the factors that threaten the forests of Algeria fire constitutes the most dangerous factor and causes severe ecological, economic and, sometimes, human losses. Within some hours fire destroys what has naturally grown over years and centuries.
In Algeria, the fire statistics established for nine years (1979-1987) provide an average of 37,000 ha of burned surface (Tab.1) (Madoui 1988). Seen its negative aspects, fire is considered like a curse of which we must face periodically. The forest law (forest code) clearly state the struggle against forest fires being a duty of all citizen.
Every year a considerable budget is assigned for the active control of forest fires. However, fires continue to affect large vegetated areas. The data of 1983 are unforgettable in the memories of foresters and firemen. This situation was the reason why we conducted the survey presented in this paper to contribute data on forest fires in Algeria and particularly in mountains of Bou-Taleb. From an ecological point of view Bou-Taleb is a primordial importance because it acts as a natural barrier between the influences of the desert and the city of Setif. The mountains are occupied by the most important plant formations in Algeria with tree species such as cedar (Cedrus libanotica ssp. atlantica (Manetti)Holm.), oak (Quercus rotundifolia Lamk.), and pine (Pinus halepensis Mill.).
Characterisation of the Survey Zone
Being located in a distance of about 50 km inland from the coastline the massif of Bou-Taleb is situated between the high plains of Setif in the north and the basin of Hodna in the south. It is part of the mountain chain of Hodna and constitutes an important mountain link but is well fragmented in its oriental part (Fig.1).
Fig.1. Fire locations in the massif Bou-Taleb
The existence many chaabet (chaâba = ravine) and the relatively elevated altitude of these djebels give the massif of Bou-Taleb an extremely intersected relief in its whole. Prevailing steep slopes in its southern part and the sparse vegetative cover encouraged significant hydric erosion after summer downpours. From the climatic viewpoint the lower altitudes are characterized by a semi-arid bioclimate with cool winters in the north, cold winters in the south, and very cold winters in the sub-humid high altitudes. The average annual precipitation ranges between 300 and 600 mm. The dry season is longer at low altitudes and can last up to five months; in the higher altitudes a short dry season usually does not exceed three months.
State of Forest Fires in the Domanial Forest of Bou-Taleb
The number of forest fires recorded in Bou-Taleb, compared to the data noted by Boudy (1955), is in rise since the independence, but irregularly. To highlight this observation, two statistical overviews on fire occurrence have been established for this region. The first concerns the period before the independence and covers the period 1907 to 1957; the second concerns the period after the independence for the period 1971 to 1991 (Tab.2).
During the first period of 51 years, 77 fires have been recorded in Bou-Taleb which destroyed a surface of more than 14,15O hectares, with an average of 1.5 fires per year and an annual mean surface burned of 277 ha. During this period half of the forest vegetation of Bou-Taleb has been devastated (49.76%).
Among the total of all fires recorded half of the number of fires (38 fire locations) devastated six main districts located all on the South flanks of the massif: Kef Haoumars (8 fires); Bou-Rièche (7 fires); Afghan, Thniet Sefra, and Chaabet Khrouf with 6 fires each and finally the Grouve canton with 5 fires. The surfaces affected, however, are relatively small as compared to the total fire occurrence.
It must be noted that in the years 1956 and 1957 the largest burned areas was recorded (10,300 ha) which corresponds to 73% of the total area burned; they corresponded to the war of Algeria (Madoui 1995).
On the other hand the fire statistics for the second period (21 years) show that 63 fires have been recorded in Bou-Taleb which destroyed more than 511 ha, with an average of three fires by year and a yearly mean surface of 24 ha.
The distribution of these fires in the massif, by canton, is irregular and have affected almost all mountains (Fig.1). Table 2 shows that the Bou-Rièche cantons, Tinzert, and Bou-Ich are most affected. In the period of 21 years, these cantons recorded 5 fires and 5 and 4 fires respectively, with the burned surfaces distinctly lower than the mean, except for the Bou-Ich canton.
The canton which recorded the largest burned surface is Chaabet Said and a small part of canton Bou-Rhioul with 225 ha devastated by only one fire. In the massif these two cantons are colonised by a green oak scrub (Quercus rotundifolia Lamk.) mixed with juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus L.). In some places juniper is dominating. This type of population is not as vulnerable to fires as pine populations but the fire has been encouraged by two favourable factors, the violent winds (sirocco) and a rich and very abundant herbaceous stratum (notably Aegylops ovata Eig., Cynosurus elegans Desf., Echinaria capitata (L.) Desf.).
Come then cantons, Arrhas, Afghan, Chaabet Khrouf, Hadjar Labiod, Thniet Sefra, Oued-guebala, Grouve, Makhrouze with three fires each. Among them, the Oued-Guebala canton is most sensible. Within 21 years more than 72 ha have been affected by fires. One of the major reason was the lack of accessibility (lack of forest roads) which made fire suppression extremely difficult.
All reports are in agreement concerning species affected by fire. As indicated by Le Houerou (1973) and Quezel (1980) Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis Mill.) is mainly affected, followed mostly by green oak (Quercus rotundifolia Lamk.) and (or) Juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus L.). According to Boudy (1955), the Algerian pine populations attract fire.
Causes of Fires
Vegetation fires are rarely ignited by natural causes. In Bou-Taleb, for instance, no single fire has been caused by lightning, the only possible natural fire cause. The activities of humans, either directly or indirectly, are exclusively causes of wildfires (Boudy 1952).
The statistical data for the 15-year period 1977 to 1991, for which we have almost complete information, show the importance of the unknown origin of fires. Unknown caused fires represent 82% of all cases; they consumed more than 409 ha, equivalent to 94% of the burned surface. Ranking net are fires caused by carelessness, mainly by smokers who throw glowing cigarettes or matches which act as embers in the wind. This category of causes is weak in Bou-Taleb by only representing 6% of all cases.
Another underlying cause of fire are conflicts between residents and forest authorities. Those residents and forest owners who had been penalised by forest rangers due to violation of laws, such as illegal grazing or wood cutting, start fires as an act of revenge. This category of causes is hidden in category unknown and most likely represent a considerable part.
Evolution of Fire Causes in Space and Time
Since our figures established for the domanial forest of Bou-Taleb for a period of 15 years are significant, we considered it useful to compare them with other, more ancient statistics.
The comparison of our present data to those recorded before the independence allows to reconstruct the long-term evolution of fire causes (Tab.3).
The first observation reveals that there is a big difference between the two periods. We have an increase at the level of percentages of the unknown origin fires and reduction at the level of those of fires caused by carelessness. Following explanations are possible:
the increase of causes declared of unknown origin maybe due to insufficient investigations to determine the real causes and to rigorously enforce sanctions;
forest management is less intensive, and supervision is more superficially than in the early days, probably because of decreased productivity and the general loss of economic interest; and
the reduction of the carelessly started fires may be explained by the fact that currently the forest is less inhabited than in the earlier days when rural activities involved a higher fire risk.
The comparison of present fire cause statistics with earlier statistics reveal several tendencies (Tab.4). It seems that before independence the share of unknown cause is lower than at present: 37.7% versus 82%. On the other side the share of 52% of carelessly caused fires were much higher than at present (17.8%). However, the large fires are caused by arson. This category represents 7.8% of all fire causes before the independence versus 0% after. However, actually this category of causes nowadays would be more important if investigations had been conducted more rigorously by the concerned services; this fact explains the elevated percentage of unknown causes.
* The difference in the total is due of absence of information for some years; so they are not included in this data.
It is noteworthy to mention lighting-caused fires. The share before the independence was 2.6% of the total number of fires whereas they are absent to our time. One of the possible explanations is that climate changed from more humid to dry.
Seasonality of Forest Fires
Before independence the occurrence of fires was distributed fairly balanced all over the year. Among the 77 fires recorded in Bou-Taleb only 36 were recorded in summer (46.7%), 31 into spring (40.3%) and only 10 (13%) in winter (Tab.5).
This distribution of fire occurrences all year round maybe explained by the role the domanial forest of Bou-Taleb played to meet the needs of the local population, especially during the extreme exploitation phase during World War II. According to Boudy (1955) 140,000 steers of green oak and pine and 8,300 m3 of pine wood were harvested at that time.
Currently, most reported fires in Bou-Taleb (88.9%) take place in the hot summer months June to September, a period during which the forest is frequently visited for grazing, collecting honey, and picking fruits. The remainder of fires takes place at the end of the spring and the beginning of the winter with 6.4% and 4.8% respectively of all cases.
Most fires start in July (41%), mainly during daytime. The concentration of fires is between 09:00h and 18:00h with 50 fires equalling 92.6% of the total number. The majority of fires (43, equalling 79.6%) occur between 11:00h and 17:00h. Only 4 fires (7.4%) occur at night between 21:00h and 08:00h in the morning. It must be assumed that fires started by carelessness start during daytime while night fires can be mainly arson fires (Ministry for Water Resources and Forestry, Algeria 1987).
Fires in forest and other vegetation are a common feature in Mediterranean ecosystems, including in the biogeographical region of Algeria, and have contributed to shape vegetation composition and model landscapes. With the modern increase of wildfire frequency a catastrophic dimension has been reached and it is time to think seriously about taking action to reduce the negative impacts of fire. The statistical approach presented in this paper contributes towards a better understanding of the role and causes of fires and will facilitate the search for solutions. As Effenterre (1990) points out, an analysis of the vegetation types affected by fire allows to determine the need for reforestation including the selection of species which are best adapted to a fire environment. Action must be taken.
Amar Madoui Faculty of Sciences, Department of Biology
University Ferhat ABBAS of Setif
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