Introduction: Forest fire statistics for 1990-1999
The total area of Estonian forests is 2.011 million ha. Forests cover 48 percent of the land area of the country. Altogether, 2 058 forest fires have been registered in Estonia in the years 1990–1999, affecting a total area of 6 211 ha. The average size of a forest fire was three hectares (Table 1).
Table 1. Forest fire database for Estonia, 1990 to 1999
Average area burned
The number and area of fires differs from year to year. Table 1 shows that there were large fires in 1992, 1997 and 1999, their total area exceeding 1 000 hectares. The major fires occurred in Vihterpalu, Harju County, in 1992 and 1997, with almost 800 ha of forest burned in both cases. Due to a rainy summer, only 61 forest fires with the total area of 53.8 ha were registered in 1998. The average fire area was 0.88 ha, which is the lowest average area burned in the last ten years. The next year, the average area of a forest fire was 8.48 ha, which is almost ten times more than the year before and the second highest in the last 40 years. The largest forest fires took place in 1963, with the average area per fire being 13.9 ha. Statistical data for an extended time period indicate that 40 percent of all fires take place in Harju County and the major fires have also occurred there. But in 1999 forest fires occurred in other counties as well. Ida-Viru County suffered the most damage in 1999, with the biggest fire of the year also occurring there (near Narva). Major fires also occurred in Harju County (Männiku) and Lääne County (Nõva). A number of major fires occurred under extraordinary circumstances that complicated their suppression. Several examples are given below.
The most extensive forest fire in 1999 took place in the vicinity of Narva (Ida-Viru County), where 400 ha of forest and peat bog that were to be turned into open-cast oil-shale pits caught on fire. Fire brigades from a number of counties participated in the suppression of this fire. Suppression was carried out sector by sector. Both portable motor pumps and truck-mounted pumps were used and a helicopter proved to be most useful. Suppression was complicated by the fact that heavy fighting had taken place at this spot during World War II. Old bombs and warheads exploded in the fire in a number of cases, making fire suppression extremely dangerous. A special mine clearing unit was called on to prepare zones where fire brigades could act in comparative safety. Due to this complicated situation, it took four weeks to suppress the fire. None of the firefighters were hurt, as adequate safety measures were taken.
An 80 ha forest fire occurred near Männiku (Harju County) with fire brigades from various counties involved. Water was transferred with the help of portable motor-pumps and pumping stations from an open cast pit (a distance of 1.5 km) and a mire pond (a distance of 1 km). A helicopter was also used to suppress the fire. This was a dangerous fire as it was very close to the city. The fire brigades managed to stop it from spreading when it was only 300 m from the dwellings. The fire was caused by arson. Suppression lasted for 16 days, a period that could have been shorter, considering the area of the fire. But arsonists (who could not be caught) twice again ignited the forest after the fire had been brought under control.
Returning to the forest fire statistics for the last ten years, it should be noted that only approximately one percent of all the fires are caused by natural factors (lightning, etc.). The remaining 99 percent are generally related to human activities. Forest fires are caused by the following factors: natural factors (lightning) 1 percent; arson 14 percent; agricultural operations 8 percent; logging and forestry operations 1 percent; transportation and communications (railways, electricity lines) 5 percent; general public (campers, other visitors, children) 52 percent and other causes 1 percent. Unknown causes account for 18 percent of all forest fires.
Figure 1. Causes of forest fires in Estonia during the 1990s
Framework of forest fire protection
As a result of institutional rearrangements, forest fire protection in Estonia has been structured as follows:
A general emergency phone-number (112) has been established and county emergency centres have started functioning. All notices of forest fires are now received on one phone-number.
Suppression of forest fires is now the responsibility of the Rescue Board under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, as provided by the Rescue Act.
Monitoring of forest fire protection and measures to prevent widespread and especially dangerous fires are the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, as provided by the Forest Act. For this purpose, the dissolved Forestry Board has been formed into the Forest Department of the Ministry.
Management of state forests and detection of forest fires from observation towers is the responsibility of the State Forest Management Centre, a state for-profit institution under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment, as provided by the Forest Act.
Research and development projects
Consistent with the recommendations of the First Baltic Conference on Forest Fires and the corresponding Polish experience, an applied research project aimed at increasing the fire-resistance of forests in the Vihterpalu region, Harju County, was launched and financed by the Forestry Board. The project report contains practical guidelines for forest owners (including the state) on developing fire breaks in fire-prone forested areas, building artificial water bodies and fire protection roads and tending roadsides. Studies on improving the fire-resistance of forests will continue in 2000.
As the process of integrating Estonia into the European Union continues, attention will be paid to the enforcement of Council Regulation (EEC) No 2158/92 and a number of development projects have been planned in this context. These projects will address methodologies for determining the degree of fire hazard and the planning of fire protection measures. Studies on the causes of forest fires are under way. The Ministry of Environment ordered these studies and research projects.
The Estonian Rescue Board has been upgrading its equipment for the suppression of forest fires. Its primary goal has been the creation of a mobile, quickly deployed water-transferring system that takes advantage of the number and distribution of Estonias lakes and rivers. Fire-pumps of different capacities and hose lines of varying diameters have been and will be acquired for this purpose. The development of these systems is region-specific.
Cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region
Estonia thinks that it is very important to carry out coordinated fire management activities with the other countries of the Baltic Sea region. The country is interested in participating in conferences and practical training sessions.
There has been good cooperation with Finland in detecting forest fires in their early phases with the help of satellites. It is intended that this project will be developed further.
A cooperative agreement concerning rescue services has been concluded with the Republic of Finland and a similar agreement is presently being prepared with the Kingdom of Sweden. These agreements give Estonia the opportunity to receive prompt technical assistance and support using previously agreed-upon procedures. So far, Estonia has not used these services and hopefully no such need will arise. However, the existence of these agreements gives a positive impetus to bilateral cooperation in the field of rescue services.
In the case of extensive and long-lasting forest fires, it would undoubtedly be useful to invite specialists from other countries to observe conditions. Exchange of experiences on the basis of real-life situations would be beneficial.
Ministry of Environment Forest Department