Ethiopia: The Ethiopia Fire Emergency between February and April 2000 (IFFN No. 23 – December 2000)


The Ethiopia Fire Emergency between February and April 2000

(will be published in IFFN No. 23 – December 2000)

This is a shortened article which was published in full length in IFFN No. 22.

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 Centre (GFMC) had been contacted on 18 February 2000.

The Situation in the Second Half of February 2000

On 18 February, the Ethiopian Federal Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) receives reports that uncontrolled forest fires have started in different parts of the country. On 20 February, the local GTZ forest advisor 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, possibilities for international assistance are being explored.

On 23 February, the MoA 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, about 10 000 ha of a total of 80 000 ha forested area, have burnt at that 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 operating in the area joins forces and provides heavy equipment. The MoA and the Regional Agricultural Bureau organise hand tools for fire fighting.

The other affected location is the Bale Massive in the Bale Administrative Zone. The fire has encroached one of the state forests which are designated National Forest Priority Area (FPA) and reportedly burned 2,500 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 heavily disturbed increasing combustible biomass. They surround Bale National Park on three sides. 600 ha of the afro-alpine vegetation in the Park have burnt but adjoining communities, environmental clubs and school students successfully extinguish the fire. As in the other area, there are different smaller fires constituting the fire threat. Apparently, fire do not expand much during daytime, but at night when the wind picks up. At this stage the situation needs further assessment but it is hoped that the fire can eventually be controlled with local resources. The terrain is rugged and dissected, making access difficult. Fire fighters have to walk several hours to reach the fire fronts and are already exhausted by the time they arrive. There is also a shortage of fire fighting hand tools, but additional fire beaters are on the way.

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 a first request for assistance from South Africa. The deployment of South African helicopters to support fire fighting is rejected due to the high demand for these are busy rescuing people from the flood-stricken regions of Mozambique.

1-5 March 2000: Start 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 which recommends immediate requests for international assistance. In addition, it is recommended to accept the Republic of South Africa’s offer to deploy a team of three experts to assist in fighting the fires. The GTZ-GFMC team is in close contact with US institutions and continuously receives 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 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.

6-9 March 2000: Formation of an International Fire Emergency Advisory Group

On 6 March 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.

Fire Weather Forecast for Ethiopia

The fire weather forecast for Ethiopia during the Ethiopia fire crisis is generated on a daily basis 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 provides the finances for this special Ethiopia forecast under the umbrella of humanitarian aid.

Net Forecasting provided two daily 6-days fire weather forecasts for Addis Ababa and Goba regions respectively, and daily fire weather forecast maps based on data from the European Centre For Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and the United Kingdom Meteorological Office (UKMO).

Satellite Remote Sensing of Fires

The US 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, provide the following remote sensing information:

U.S. Air Force Defence Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP)

The DMSP Operational Linescan System detects fires at night in a light- intensified visible channel at a 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) are produced Monday through Friday.

NOAA Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR)

The NOAA AVHRR provides information for meteorological, hydrologic and oceanographic studies. POES AVHRR Local Area Coverage (LAC) 1 km resolution data recorded onto NOAA-14 spacecraft are 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

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 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 centre, soldiers and community members succeeded in containing the fires in Kumbi Forest.

On 12 March, the South African pilot trainer, technician and additional four crew leaders arrive. On 13 March, the helicopter-based fire fighting operations become fully operational in Bale Zone. 38 fire fighters (18 South African and 20 Ethiopian) organised in four teams, contain fires extending over an area of 25 ha in the east of the National Park.

On 14 March a shipment of 320 back-pack water pumps from Germany arrives by special air freight in the morning.

The Situation between 15 and 28 March 2000

On 15 March, the Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GFMC) approaches the UNEP and suggests 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 discusses a contribution of the United Kingdom to upgrade the national Ethiopian remote sensing capabilities for fire detection.

In the meantime, 271 mobilised fire fighters (community members, militia men, etc.) have been trained successfully in fire fighting techniques. The previously trained Ethiopian soldiers contribute effectively as trainers and, hence, to the training success.

On 21 March, 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 home. The remaining teams continue with training and fire fighting in Shakiso area. Funding for this is covered by the UNEP contribution.

On 22 March, new fire outbreaks are reported in Nechisar (Southern Region, East of Arba Minch) and Awash (Affar Region) National Parks. The MoA has no detailed information on these fires, but believes that the fires are 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 would have been started by pastoralist groups to encourage growth of fresh grass and to eliminate tick populations. The Ministry dispatches some of the withheld back-pack water pumps from Germany to Nechisar Park to ensure the fires do not spread into the unique ground water forests of Arba Minch.

On 24 March, the fire in Nechisar National Park is contained, after burning 10 to 15% of the total Park Area. The spotter plane continues to survey the area. There is still a serious fire around Amare Mountain, located east of the National Park. Another fire is reported from Butajira Mountain (Gurarghe Mountain), approximately 100 km SSW of Addis Ababa.

The remaining South African fire fighters are deployed to combat a fire close to a microwave tower nearby the town of Shakiso. Winds are fairly strong on 24 March, but calm 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 efficiency of water bombing continues to improve, supporting the ground crews. Apart from the rains already reported, no new rainfalls occur in either of the two zones.

On 28 March, the South African Embassy organises a reception in the honour of the South Africans and they all leave, on 29 March, with farewell presents from the Ethiopian Government.

The number of civilians and soldiers trained in fire fighting techniques totals 755 on 30 March. Hence, considerable capacities have been built during the fire incident. The Incident Command Team continues to monitor the situation.

On 31 March, heavy rainfalls are reported in both Borana and Bale Zones, on 29 and 30 March.

7 April 08:00 GMT: Fires Under Control

On 5 April, MoA Vice Minister, Mr. Belay Ejigu, holds a press conference on the Forest Fires in Bale and Borana Zones. He declares that the wildfires in these Zones are suppressed. The MoA experts 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 brought to an end.

Résumé by the GFMC (7 April 2000)

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 were provided by a group of countries. The agencies involved through the diplomatic channels and the individual fire specialists dispatched to Ethiopia or supporting the campaign from their home offices worked together in a very smooth and efficient way.

From the beginning the GFMC, in close collaboration with the Government of Ethiopia and the German Agency for Technical Co-operation (GTZ), has assessed, monitored and supported the campaign in which Germany, South Africa, the United States of America, and the UNEP successfully co-operated with the staff of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Armed Forces, the numerous villagers and enthusiastic students who provided voluntary help.

At the peak of the campaign, more than 70,000 people were involved in fire-fighting. All worked together to save the ecologically and biodiversity rich assets of the afro-montane forests of Ethiopia.

More challenges lay ahead: The burning of forests and the escaping of wildfires will continue. In order to address uncontrolled and destructive wildfires, a long-term prevention program in fire management must be established. The need for such a program does not only apply to Ethiopia but also to many 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 meet with international donors.

Contact Address

Johann G. Goldammer
Fire Ecology Research Group
Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GFMC)
Max Planck Institute for Chemistry
C/o Freiburg University
79085 Freiburg


Günter Haase
Advisory Assistance to the Forest Administration
Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit
GTZ-AAFA Project
P.O.Box 12631
Addis Ababa


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