The Ethiopia Fire Emergency between February and April 2000
(IFFN No. 22- April 2000, p. 2-8)
A Summary Retrospective
Between late February and early April 2000 severe forest fires occurred in the mountain forests of Ethiopia. Following a request from the government of Ethiopia the very first and successful multi-national wildland fire fighting campaign in history was initiated in a developing tropical country. This summary provides a narrative of the events as they took place after the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) had been contacted on 18 February 2000.
The Situation in the Second Half of February 2000
On 18 February 2000 the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) of Ethiopia receives reports that uncontrolled forest fires have started in different parts of the country. On 20 March the forest advisor to the Ministry of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (German Agency for Technical Cooperation – GTZ) identifies the website of the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC). On 20 February he contacts the GFMC and describes the situation. At this point, the extent of these fires is not yet known, but at the end of the dry season the situation looks serious. Some of the fires had started in woodland areas (lowlands) but have already encroached the neighbouring afro-montane forest areas. The MoA is very concerned about the situation and launches two reconnaissance surveys on 18 February to more accurately assess the situation. Since local capacities for fire fighting are limited (no fire fighting equipment and no special know-how and experience of forestry experts available), it is considered to explore whether there are any possibilities for international assistance in this matter.
On 23 February the Ministry of Agriculture receives more detailed reports on two larger forest fires in Oromiya Regional State. Both fires started in transition zones between woodland and forest areas and have since encroached on the forest. One of the affected areas is located in the Borana Administrative Zone, near Shakiso town. Reportedly, out of a total forested area of 80,000 ha, about 10,000 had been burnt at this stage. There are three major fires in different locations. A task force consisting of forestry experts of all administrative levels and the local administration is established and manages to mobilise the local population for fire fighting activities. A mining company that is operating in the area joins forces and provides heavy equipment like bulldozers and trucks. The MoA and the Regional Agricultural Bureau organises hand tools for fire fighting.
The other affected location is the Bale Massive in the Bale Administrative Zone. The fire encroached one of the state forests which are designated National Forest Priority Area (FPA) and reportedly burned 2500 ha. There are four different FPAs located in this area, totalling some 580,000 ha of forested land. The forests are in most parts disturbed or even heavily disturbed which has resulted in the increased production of combustible biomass, i.e. grasses and herbs. The state forests surround Bale National Park from three directions. The Bale NP is famous for being inhabited by endemic species such as the Ethiopian Wolf and the Mountain Nyala. Because of its great floristic and faunistic diversity, UNESCO has designated the Bale Mountain Area as one of its 200 worldwide Bio Regions, the only one located in Ethiopia. 600 ha of the afro-alpine vegetation in the Park have been burnt but adjoining communities, environmental clubs and school students successfully extinguish the fire. According to one report, the fire was already as close as 80 km to Dinsho, the National Park headquarters. As in the other area, there are different smaller fires constituting the fire threat. Apparently, there is not much fire expansion during the daytime. It mostly occurs during the night when the wind picks up. At this stage the situation needed further assessment but was hoped that the fire could be controlled with local resources. A major problem is the difficult accessibility of the forest areas. The terrain is rugged and dissected. Fire fighters had to walk several hours to reach the fire fronts and were already exhausted by the time they arrive. There is also a shortage of fire fighting hand tools, but additional fire beaters were on the way.
While the lowland areas of the country are burnt regularly and in many parts even annually, forest fires of this extent have not been reported since 1984 when the country was struck by a major drought. It became apparent that there is a lack of specialist know-how in fire fighting and fire management in the country and that there are insufficient capacities for fighting forest fires of this magnitude in all aspects. Therefore, there is a plan to embark on a program for building fire fighting capacities amongst the forest administration. The services of the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) will be instrumental in this regard.
27 February 2000
The GFMC disseminates a fire situation report and calls for attention and assistance of fire specialists and government authorities in South Africa, Ethiopia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. At this stage the government of Ethiopia launches its first request for assistance from South Africa. The deployment of South African helicopters to Ethiopia to support fire fighting in the remote areas is rejected due to the high demand for helicopters for rescuing people from the flood-stricken regions of Mozambique, a very prominent humanitarian task.
1-5 March 2000: Commence of the International Response
On 1 March a fire specialist from the GFMC is dispatched to Ethiopia. On 2 March a first situation analysis by GFMC-GTZ is submitted to the government of Ethiopia. It is recommended to immediately request international assistance in delivering hand tools for fire fighting. In addition it is recommended to accept the offer of the Republic of South Africa to deploy a team of three experts to assist the country in fighting the fires. The GTZ-GFMC team is in close contact with US institutions to continuously receive medium- to high resolution near-real time satellite maps (DMSP, NOAA AVHRR). It is proposed to transmit the maps directly to the US embassy in Addis Ababa and the Ministry and to forward the satellite data to the field to support emergency measures. Between Friday 3 and Sunday 5 March 2000 a mixed Ethiopian-German team is dispatched to the fire region South of Addis Ababa and is joined by the South African team on 4 March.
Fig. 1. Aerial view of burning mountain forests in Bale Region (Photo dated 4 March 2000)
6-9 March 2000: Formation of an International Fire Emergency Advisory Group
On 6 March 2000 an International Fire Emergency Advisory Group is formed consisting of Ethiopian, GFMC, German, South African and US experts and set up an Incident Command System (ICS). The international community and the media are briefed on the situation in Addis Ababa.
Extracts of the original text of the briefing:
Brief situation assessment
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.
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.
We, the international fire experts, agree that after completion of the immediate fire fighting response medium- and long-term fire management programs must follow on the base of a national land-use and fire policy.
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.
The minimum requirements for using international fire suppression crews in the burning closed mountain forests were listed and included hand tools, airborne Helicopter fire suppression crews, two helicopter Bambi buckets, VHF communication sets (for ground/aircraft communication), one C-206 fire spotter plane (with pilot and aerial fire boss), daily monitoring of fires and weather forecast, helicopter fire fighting instructors and technicians, and fire crew training.
Ethiopia should make available two 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-the-job training); replacement crews for work in shifts must be provided; fuel supply for the duration of the operations (helicopter fuel and Avgas for spotter plane); a group of 20 highly motivated and physically fit members of the Army for aerial crew reinforcement; establishment of the Fire Operations Base Camp; radio station for Fire Operations Base Camp; logistical Support team.
Additional international support should include one Fire Boss/Incident Commander; additional hand tools for ground fire crews in nearby areas; continuation of satellite-derived delivery of fire maps; two additional helicopters (with winch equipment); four additional fire fighting crews; in kind or cash contributions for fuel and food supply.
Fire Weather Forecast for Ethiopia
The fire weather forecast for Ethiopia during the Ethiopia fire crisis was generated on a daily base by Net Forecasting. This independent weather forecast service from South Africa usually provides fire weather forecasts for the South African Fire Fighting Association (FFA). The government of South Africa provided the finances of this special Ethiopia forecast under the umbrella of humanitarian aid.
Net Forecasting provided daily two 6-days fire weather forecasts for Addis Ababa and Goba regions for 14:00h and daily fire weather forecast maps on the base of resources from the European Center For Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and the United Kingdom Meteorological Office (UKMO).
Tab. 1. Goba Area Forecast for 14:00 h GMT Wednesday 29 March 2000
Satellite Remote Sensing of Fires
The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), International and Interagency Affairs Office, on the request of the Government of Ethiopia through its embassy in Addis Ababa, provided the following remote sensing information:
U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP)
The DMSP Operational Linescan System has the capability to detect fires at night in a light intensified visible channel. DMSP images were provided at 2.7 km resolution for the East African region. A special survey area where the fires occurred (Goba and Shakiso Regions – 5-9°N, 38-42°E were produced daily between Monday through Friday.
NOAA Advanced Very High-Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR)
The NOAA AVHRR has been designed to provide information for meteorological, hydrologic and oceanographic studies. POES AVHRR Local Area Coverage (LAC) 1 km resolution data recorded onto NOAA-14 spacecraft were processed from 8 to 10 March and occasionally later. Restrictions were due to the fact that the satellite’s orbital track changed and the spacecraft did not image directly over Ethiopia due to other commitments for recording 1×1 km resolution data.
The Situation between 8 and 14 March 2000: Building up the Field Forces
Three crew leaders from the Republic of South Africa (RSA) arrive on 8 March. A South African and a US fire specialist leave for Robe/Goba in order to carry out some training of ground crew leaders.
The spotter plane from South Africa arrives on Friday 10 March afternoon. Later that day 15 forest fire fighters arrive from Johannesburg, South Africa. On 11 March they are dispatched to Goba Base Camp and joined by 15 Ethiopian soldiers.
On Saturday morning it is reported from Bale Zone that students from an agricultural training center, soldiers and community members succeeded to contain the fires in Kumbi Forest (south west of the Bale National Park).
On 12 March 2000 the South African pilot trainer, technician and additional four crew leaders arrive. On 13 March 2000 the helicopter-based fire fighting operations come into full swing in Bale Zone. 38 fire fighters (18 South African and 20 Ethiopian), which are organised in four teams, contain fires extending over an area of 25 ha in Berbere and Goro locations in the east of the National Park.
On 14 March 2000 a shipment of 320 back-pack water pumps from Germany arrive by special air freight from Germany in the morning.
The Situation between 15 and 28 March 2000
On 15 March the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) approaches the UNEP and suggested a cash donation to ensure the continuation of South African fire fighter involvement. On 17 March the government of Ethiopia officially requests UNEP assistance.
Parallel to the UNEP negotiations the GFMC discussed a contribution of the United Kingdom to upgrade the national Ethiopian remote sensing capabilities for fire detection.
Meanwhile 271 mobilised fire fighters (community members, militia men, etc.) have been trained successfully in fire fighting techniques. The previously trained Ethiopian soldiers effectively contribute as trainers and, hence, to the training success.
On 21 March 2000 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) hands over a cash donation of $US 20,000. As scheduled, 14 fire fighters from South Africa return to their home country. The remaining teams continue with training and actual fire fighting in Shakiso area. Funding for this is covered by the UNEP contribution.
On 22 March reports are obtained about new outbreaks of fires in Nechisar (Southern Region, East of Arba Minch) and Awash (Affar Region) National Parks. The Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) did not receive any detailed information on the fires, but it is believed that the fires were occurring in woodland, bushland and grassland ecosystems. All of these are adapted to fire and, hence, do not call for immediate fire fighting action. The fires presumably had been started by pastoralist groups which are residing close to or even inside the parks in order to encourage growth of fresh grass and to eliminate tick populations. The Ministry dispatched some of the withheld back-pack water pumps from Germany to Nechisar Park to make sure that the fires there do not spread into the unique ground water forests of Arba Minch.
On 24 March the fire in Nechisar National Park is contained. It is estimated that 10 to 15% of the total Park Area had been burned. The spotter continues to survey the area and reports to the Incident Command. There is still a serious fire around Amare Mountain, which is located east of the National Park. Another fire is reported from Butajira Mountain (Gurarghe Mountain), approximately 100 km SSW of Addis Ababa. The fire reportedly is raging in the Erica arborea Zone of the forest, but no details are known yet.
The remaining South African fire fighters are deployed to combat a fire close to the microwave tower nearby Shakiso town. The fire had been contained at the access road to the tower last night and the suppression activities are presently continued. Winds are fairly strong on 24 March, but calmed down on 25 March. There are no reports about rains.
On 26 March heavy showers are occurring on 24-25 March in Bale Zone around Dolo Mena. The quality of water bombing continues to improve and proves very effective in supporting the ground crews around a fire-threatened micro wave tower. Apart from the already reported rains, no new rainfalls are received in either of the two zones.
All South Africans leave Ethiopia on 29 March as scheduled. On 28 March the South African Embassy had organized a reception in their honour. and they all left with a set of traditional Ethiopian clothes – farewell presents of the Ethiopian Government.
On 31 March reports were received that there were heavy showers, in both Borana and Bale Zones, on 29 and 30 March 2000.
The number of civilians and soldiers that were trained in fire fighting techniques totals 755 on 30 March 2000. Hence, considerable capacities have been built during the fire incident. The Incident Command Team continues to monitor the situation.
Fig. 2. DMSP scene of the Bale region and Borana , 10 March 2000 (upper left corner 9°N, 38°E; lower right corner 5°N, 42°E).
7 April 08:00 GMT: Fires Under Control
On Wednesday 5 April 2000 the Vice Minister of the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture, Mr.Belay Ejigu, gives a press conference on the Forest Fires in Bale and Borana Zones. He declares that the wildfires in these Zones are suppressed. The experts of the Ministry of Agriculture are called back to Addis Ababa and asked to prepare their final reports. Except for continued monitoring of the situation by zonal experts the fire fighting activities are being completed for the time being.
Resumé by the GFMC (7 April 2000)
The Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) congratulated national Ethiopian and international partners for successful collaboration in combating the disastrous wildfires.
This fire fighting campaign – the very first and successful multinational intervention in history – had started in late February 2000. On request of the Government of Ethiopia immediate situation analysis and subsequent assistance was provided by a group of countries. The agencies officially involved through the diplomatic channels and the individual fire specialists dispatched to Ethiopia or supporting the campaign from their home offices worked together smoothly and efficiently.
From the beginning of the situation the GFMC, in close collaboration with the Government of Ethiopia and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), has assessed, monitored and supported the campaign in which Germany, South Africa, the United States of America, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) successfully cooperated with the staff of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Armed Forces of Ethiopia, and the numerous villagers and enthusiastic students which provided voluntary help.
At the peak of the campaign more than 70,000 people have been involved in fire-fighting. All worked together to save the ecologically and biodiversity rich assets of the afro-montane forests of Ethiopia.
More challenges are ahead: The burning of forests and the escaping of wildfires will continue. In order to address uncontrolled and destructive wildfires a long-term prevention and preparedness program in fire management must be installed. The need for such development does not only apply for Ethiopia but also for all other countries in Africa. Following the example of Namibia, a National Round Table on Fire will be convened soon in Ethiopia. At this Round Table all national stakeholders involved in land-use and fire problems will be convened, together with the international community.
Ethiopia is facing another major environmental and humanitarian crisis. The prolonged drought has caused a major decline if agricultural and pastoral production. Millions of Ethiopian people are endangered by famine and death. International solidarity is required to respond fast.
The conflicts are visible: People need land and food. Forests are “reserve” lands for providing space for the rapidly expanding populations. If we all want to save human lives and the forests we need to act responsibly. Let us not forget that humanitarian and environmental disasters interact or cause each other.
The GFMC will further follow the fire situation in Ethiopia. The GFMC has to go back to its working mode which currently allows updating of the global fire situation only during weekdays due to limited finances and personnel.
Johann G. Goldammer
Head, Global Fire Monitoring Center
Fig. 3. In traditional slash-and-burn agriculture systems of Ethiopia the forest is not cleared completely. Trees remain for providing shade and regeneration after fields are abandoned.