Indonesia: The 1997 Wildfire Season and the Impact of Fire Management Projects in Indonesia (IFFN No. 18 – January 1998)


The 1997 Wildfire Season and the Impact
of Fire Management Projects in Indonesia

(IFFN No. 18 – January 1998, p. 37-39)


In 1982/83 one of the probably largest forest fires in this century raged for several months through the tropical rain forests of Borneo and burned an estimated 5 million ha of forest. The Indonesian province East Kalimantan was the area worst hit by these fires. Since then, fire has become a constant feature on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Large areas burned here again in 1986, 1991 and 1994.


Causes and Consequences of Wildfires

The fires within the rural and wildland areas of Indonesia are almost 100% caused by humans. Only in very limited areas of East Kalimantan, burning coal seams have some significance. The major share of all ignitions results from escaped agricultural burns. Fire is the only available – and cheapest – tool for smallholders to reduce vegetation cover and to prepare and fertilize the extremely poor soils. To an increasing extent the causes of fire and smoke emissions have been ascribed to large-scale forest conversion and land clearing activities (pulp wood, rubber tree and oil palm plantations) over the last couple of years.

With the process of forest degradation, which can be observed in many places in Kalimantan and Sumatra, these islands become more and more prone to fire. The visitor will still find areas of primary rain forest, but will also see millions of hectares of land converted into grassland by humans and fire. While virgin dipterocarp (Dipterocarpaceae) forests will normally not carry any significant amounts of fire, the widespread Imperata cylindrica grasslands will burn again virtually every year. No other vegetation can compete with this grass as long as fire is not excluded. In between these two extremes of vegetation, every form of transition can be found in Kalimantan and Sumatra.


Political Developments and Upcoming Fire Management

Since the 1987 fires Indonesia has been at odds with neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, as the hazy smoke from these fires covered the South East Asian region for weeks and caused health problems and disruption of shipping and aviation, even culminating in the closing-down of international airports. In 1991 Indonesia asked for international help. In an international workshop (Bandung Conference) sponsored by the German Government, the outline of a “Long-term Integrated Fire Management System for Indonesia” was agreed upon and the German Government through the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) committed itself to helping build up fire management capacities in East-Kalimantan.

The Integrated Forest Fire Management (IFFM/gtz) project began in 1994 and is scheduled to last for 8 years. With phase II (1997-2000), IFFM has become a cooperation project with the German Development Bank (KfW), which will provide a financial grant of 10 million DM for the purchasing of fire equipment. Additionally, GTZ who is in overall charge of the German contribution, contributes with long and short-term consultants, support staff and training. Indonesia provides the premises, personnel and the budget for operating the fire management system.



An appropriate level of fire protection, suitable equipment, necessary fire intelligence and the necessary institutional and structural support were evaluated and determined for a pilot area during Phase I. In the second and third phases local fire centres in the most fire prone areas of East Kalimantan will be equipped and the personnel trained to prevent and fight fires. The provincial fire centre will provide intelligence (satellite- borne fire detection, fire danger rating) and coordinate the fire management activities in East Kalimantan. A crucial factor is the involvement of the local population, who uses and causes fires, in a “community based fire management” scheme.


Project Components

The project supports Indonesia in its effort to build up capacities in the fields of

  • Fire prevention
  • Pre-suppression / fire intelligence
  • Fire suppression
  • Prescribed burning

by providing a basic infrastructure for fire management, training at all levels in-country and abroad, facilitating the crucial cooperation among the involved parties and by stressing the need to include local people, especially slash and burn farmers, in fire management.

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Fig.1.  A community-based approach in social fire management ensures the full participation of integrated fire management by the rural population. The photo shows social fire research officer Hartmut Abberger in discussion with a local fire user, in the IFFM project area. Photo: J.G.Goldammer

The 1997 Fire Season and the Impact of the IFFM/gtz Project

In 1997 Indonesia was struck again with an extremely bad El Niño event and a resulting fire season that might compare with 1982/83. Thousands of escaped agricultural burns and huge land conversion fires were burning on the islands of Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra and could be detected and monitored on satellite images. The haze from forest and wildland fires covered an area almost the size of Europe, disrupted aviation and shipping for months and caused serious health problems with the visibility being down to 20 m in some provinces and an extreme level of pollutants in the air.

This year was the first time since the fire problem began in the early eighties that East Kalimantan was not the foremost burning province in Indonesia, on the contrary, “hot spots” counted on NOAA satellite images were surprisingly low compared to all other provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan. This was not by accident but can be ascribed to the impact of the IFFM/gtz project, the successful use of a fire early warning system, and cooperation with the Indonesian authorities.

Based on El Niño predictions accessible on the Internet, IFFM started to issue warnings to the Provincial Forest Authority (Kanwil Kehutanan) since May. The East Kalimantan fire danger index, which was developed by IFFM and is calculated using basic meteorological data (rainfall, maximum temperature) reached a “high level” on 2 August 1997 (Fig.2). The Chief of the Forest Department East Kalimantan (Kepala Kanwil) immediately informed the Governor of the Province. Subsequently the logging permits in East Kalimantan were temporarily revoked and the concession companies directed the available manpower to fully concentrate on preventing and suppressing wildfires. The Governor declared red alert for the province and issued orders to all his subordinate authorities to be ready for operation. The use of fire was completely banned. This happened in East Kalimantan about a month before the other provinces and the central level followed. Though law enforcement and control is particularly difficult in a province with poor infrastructure, the results are obvious.



This has been a modest and limited success for fire management in Indonesia in a dry season that has been rather frustrating to all those who struggle for the country’s remaining forests. But it has been a success indeed and it should motivate us to go ahead. Much needs to be done and it has to be done soon. Fire is only a symptom. Therefore the problem cannot be solved by setting up fire management capabilities alone. Indonesia needs to pay attention to the needs of millions of migrants who use fire often carelessly because they don’t know better. And Indonesia should revise its policy to convert millions of hectares of forests into plantations, because this can never be achieved without the use of fire. It is a shortsighted forest policy anyway, because the majority of these areas will end up as wasteland after the first rotation and burn every couple of years.

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Fig.2. The East Kalimantan Fire Danger Index, which was developed by IFFM and is calculated with basic meteorological data (rainfall, maximum temperature) reached the “high level” on 2 August 1997. The IFFM Index is derived from the Keetch-Byram Drought Index. Its number represents the net effect of evapotranspiration and precipitation in producing a cumulative measure of moisture deficiency in the deep duff and soil layers. The Index is progressively increased by the computation of a daily drought factor which depends on maximum daily temperature. The Index is reduced for by the amount of daily rainfall.

From: Ludwig Schindler
Team Leader,
Integrated Forest Fire Management Project (IFFM/gtz)

Tromol Pos 826 (KT)
Samarinda 75001

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