Kazakhstan: Forest Fire Situation (IFFN No. 24 – April 2001, 60-67)

Forest Fire Situation in Kazakhstan

(IFFN No. 24 – April 2001, p. 60-67)

Introduction: Fire environment, fire regimes, ecological role of fire

Kazakhstan is a large country covering a total surface of 2.7 million km2 The climate of Kazakhstan is extremely continental. The North of the country is characterized by cold and long winters and dry, short summers. Conversely, the South experiences short and low-snow winters and long, dry and hot summers. Summer droughts accompanied by dusty storms and dry winds are very common (Gvozdetski and Nikolaev 1971). During such drought periods, the fire danger increases sharply and the number of wildfires occurring on wooded land is extremely high. An overall trend of increasing aridity of the climate of Kazakhstan has been observed for about half a century. Consequently, a destabilisation of forests and woodlands and an increase of wildfire danger have been observed.

The large size of the territory of Kazakhstan has produced a great diversity in natural landscapes. Five major natural zones and wildland fire characteristics have been identified (Arkhipov et al. 2000):

  • High-mountainous landscape zone

consisting of three sub-zones: nival with eternal snow, alpine meadows, and high-mountainous coniferous forests. Fires occurring in the coniferous forests spread uphill and develop as crown fires.

  • Forest steppe landscape zone

consisting of two sub-zones: southern forest steppe and typical forest steppe. The forests in the typical forest steppe are frequently ignited by steppe fires.

  • Temperate steppe landscape zone

consisting of two sub-zones: northern grassland-cereal steppes and southern dry tipchak-kovyl steppes. The fire regimes of timber islands, embedded in the steppe, depend on the fire conditions in the steppe.

  • Semi-desert landscape zone

consisting of two sub-zones: lowhill-foothill semi-desert and flat semi-desert.

  • Desert landscape zone

consisting of two sub-zones: wormwood-saltworty (Artemisia-Salsola rigida) deserts and ephemerial-wormwood deserts.

Saksaoul (Haloxylon spp.) is the main element of woody vegetation in the two last zones. Saksaoul stands are usually not affected by wildfires if understory vegetation and the herb-shrub layer are intensively grazed and browsed by livestock. If understory fuels are present, these forests can be damaged severely by wildfires. Tougai, the flood-plains forest of Central Asia, represent a separate class of woodlands and a microclimatic zone with its own particular fire regimes.

The Forest Fund of Kazakhstan is divided into natural fire danger classes (Table 1). Figure 1 shows the types and pyrological classification of forests in Kazakhstan.

The forest-steppe zone is located at the limits of the West-Siberian Lowland and occupies the northern part of Kazakhstan (territory of North-Kazakhstan, Aqmola and Pavlodar administrative provinces) with a total share of more than ten percent of the territory of the country. This is occupied by intensive agriculture (grain, pastures and grasslands for hay production) and large areas of wooded lands. Fires occurring in these territories cause high losses in the agriculture and forest sectors. Systematic wildland fire protection is therefore required by state forest and agricultural enterprises. The fires usually occur in the early spring and in autumn, especially in dry years. The basic causes of wildfires are agricultural burning and violation of the requirements of fire safety.

The steppe landscape zone comprises up to 20 percent of the total territory of the republic. All steppe vegetation and the grain crops quite often suffer from human-caused fires, mainly from agricultural burning. The steppe phytomass after drying, becomes a dangerous fuel. The fires occurring in kovyl (Stipa capillata L. – “feather grass”) and tipchak (Festuca sulcata Hack) grassy steppe usually last for long time and spread over large areas. The fuel load of dry herb material on such sites ranges from 0.22 up to 0.38 t/ha. The fires start due to the negligence of shepherds, fishers and hunters, machines, members of expeditions, agricultural burnings and dry thunder-storms, and cause considerable damage to the national economy. The crops of agricultural cultures, pastures, hay production and groves are damaged and destroyed by fires. The rate of spread of a steppe fire is directly dependent on wind velocity. Flame heights usually reach 0.9-1.0 m in grass fuelbeds of 30 to 40 cm height. In the kovyl steppe, fire can spread against the wind with a rate of 5 to 10 times below the wind-driven spread rate. During such a wind-driven headfire, a convective movement is formed, and the fire quite often “runs” along the tops of grass stands. When it reaches either a natural barrier or a mineralised strip (firebreak) it stops, and the fuel on the whole area burned over by the headfire gradually burns out.

Table 1. Fire danger classes in Kazakhstan (after V. Arkhipov)

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Figure 1. A forest fire map of Kazakhstan. The legend at the leftside of the map shows forest types and fire danger classes.

The Central Kazakhstan Low Hill Land is located in a woody zone of the northwest part of Sary-Arka (Aqmola province, Baian-Aoul of the Pavlodar province, Karkaraly of the Karagandy province). Wood and steppe vegetation, climate and relief of the region promote the origin, distribution and development of wildfires, especially in hot, dry and windy weather. The control of fires is hampered here due to inaccessibility of the woody sites. At the same time, rocky ledges and the stony material act as natural obstacle to further fire spread.

Fires in the pine forests of Sary-Arka represent a major factor influencing plantings and causing considerable damage to the forest economy. Afforested wood species here are pine (Pinus sylvestris) and birch (Betula verrucosa Ehrh.). Fire hazard and flammability are highest in the following forest types: very dry stony-rocky pine forests, dry stony lichen-pine forests and dry cereals-berry pine forest. The average annual number of fires here is about 100; and the average area of a fire is 5.4 ha during an average fire season. The basic cause of forest fires here is the violation of the fire prevention rules by many people in sanatoriums, boarding houses, camping sites, motels and tourist bases; and by the local population. Lightning represents only a minor fraction of all fire starts. Coniferous trees occur as undergrowth and plantations. Their flammability is determined by the high fire hazard of coniferous stands, dryness of the climate and availability of a large area of combustible materials, from 9 to 30 t/ha. Special attention in the forests of this region should be devoted to fire prevention and the regulation of recreational activities.

The Band (Strip) Pine Forests (Lentochnyie Groves) of Western Siberia and Kazakhstan are located in a steppe between the Irtysh and Ob Rivers. The forests are important for the protection of water resources, soils and the agricultural sector. They are also of high aesthetic importance and represent an important basic source of wood in the region. The main afforestation species is Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris). Fire hazard and flammability are highest in the following pine forest types: dry forest of high dunes, dry forests of sloping hillocks, topographic depressions and lowlands. In the indicated forest types, fires are even

common in wet years. In the very dry 1997 extremely large, catastrophic fires occurred in the timber enterprises of Semey (Semipalatinsk) Forest Management Department, totalling 511 fires affecting an area of 58 893 ha. In timber enterprises of Band Pine Forests of the Pavlodar province, 316 forest fires burned 17 672 ha in the same year. The basic reason for forest fires is violation of the fire prevention rules. In regard to the high fire danger and flammability of Band Pine Forests, the basic fire protection strategy should be one of prevention and development of a detection and suppression system for fire-prone areas.

The island pine forests of Kostanai province are located as green islands among extensive unforested areas on flat terrain. The climate is extremely arid with annual precipitation varying from 240 to 350 mm. The duration of an average fire season exceeds 180 days. These forests are exposed to frequent fires. For instance, the large fires in the territory of Naurzum Reserve have essentially reduced the total size of forests. There is no natural regeneration on burned sites. Regeneration is found only occasionally in “saucer”-shaped depressions where pine, aspen and birch are regenerating.

The remaining pine forests of the region also experience frequent fires. The fire history of these stands has been reconstructed by fire scars in tree rings. Despite the damages, pine forests represent favourite recreational places for people from the cities Kostanai, Rudnyj, Lissakovsk; and tourists from other regions also visit the area. During the summer season numerous youth camps, recreation houses and tourist bases are functioning here.

The semi-desert that covers the central part of the country (22 percent of the territory) represents the transitional zone between steppe and desert. Typical landscapes are hillock-sandy plains with wormwood-grassy and bushy vegetation. Under these conditions, wormwood-salsola (Artemisia / Salsola regida) vegetation is characteristic and does not form closed grass stands. In valleys of the drying rivers and in crevices of hills there are small meadows. The climate is rather droughty: cold and low-snow winters and dry and hot summers. Fires occur frequently. Steadfast attention is required to protect the area from fires, especially in pastures and haymaking grasslands. The zone of deserts reaches to the central and southwest parts of Kazakhstan, between 48°N and 41°N. The deserts of Kyzyl-Kum and Kara-Kum (drainage-basin of Syr-Darya river) and the southern Balqash region (drainage-basin of Ile river) are sand deserts (Aral sands) and cover about 47 percent of the territory of the country. The continental climate is characterised by high insolation and aridity. The large rivers (Ural, Syr-Darya, Ile, Lepsy) and other rivers originate outside the desert zone. Landscapes are characterised by black saksaoul (Haloxylon aphyllum), white saksaoul (Haloxylon persicum), zhuzgun (Calligonum arborescens), tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima Ldb., Tamarix gallica), chingil (Halimodendron halodendron (L) Voss.), sandy acacia (Ammodendron Fish. ex. DC) and zhantaq (Alhagi pseudalhagi).

Narrative summary of major wildfire impacts on people, property, and natural resources during the 1990s

The largest number of wildfires of the 20th Century occurred in the 1990’s. A recent analysis reveals that the number of wildfires and the area burned in Kazakhstan grew exponentially during the last 50 years (Arkhipov et al. 2000). Extreme fire years were 1963, 1974 and 1997. The most extreme fire season occurred in 1997 when a total of 2 257 wildfires affected 216 950 ha. Forests were affected in all landscape zones, e.g. in the Band Groves (Lentochnye Groves) along the Irtysh River, spruce groves on the slopes of the Ile Alatau mountains, the insular coniferous groves in Kostanai province and the forests of North of Kazakhstan and Altai. The large crown fire in Altai in 1997 (Markakol ranger station) generated a fire storm in which 17 firefighters were killed. The causes of the forest fires during the 1997 fire season are summarized in Table 2. The wood losses from wildfires in Kazakhstan for the period 1991 to 2000 were ca. 92 million $US in domestic wood prices (Table 3). The costs of these losses in world prices exceeded 400 million $US. Considering the need for increasing the import of wood, job losses in the wood industry, expenses for reforestation, rehabilitation of fire-affected land and other expenditures, the amount of damage caused by this fire episode is much higher.

Table 2. Number and causes of forest fires during the 1997 fire season

* data are probably underestimated
**data are probably overestimated

Fire database: Wildfire statistics of fire numbers, area burned and fire causes for the period of 1990-1999

In addition to the information on the fires in 1997, the statistical data for the period 1980-2000 are given in Table 3.

 Table 3. Forest fire statistics of Kazakhstan for the period 1980-2000.

 Operational fire management system and organizations present in Kazakhstan

All forest land in Kazakhstan is the property of the state. Thus, the task of forest protection, including fire protection, is exclusively the responsibility of government agencies. An organizational diagram is given in Figure 2.


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Figure 2. Forest and steppe area burned in Kazakhstan during the fire season 2000 (date of satellite image: 29 September 2000). The total area burned was 1.024 million ha. Source: A. Sukhinin, Sukachev Institute for Forest, Fire Laboratory, Krasnoyarsk, Russian Federation.

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Figure 3. Organization of forest fire protection responsibilitiesin Kazakhstan

 Fire management practices

The traditional system of wildfire protection used in Kazakhstan includes the establishment and maintenance of firebreaks around forest stands. There are also restrictions for agricultural and other activities in buffer zones (defence bands) around forests. Prescribed fires are not used in Kazakhstan, since they are officially forbidden.

Public policies concerning fire

Because humans are the main cause of forest fires, the public policy regarding wildfires comprises public awareness and educational campaigns. The government is gradually transforming hunting and forest facilities to nature reserves and national parks. In 1998, Karkaraly National Nature Park was established, and in 2000 Borovoye Timber Enterprise was transformed to National Park called “Bourabai”. In the same year Markakol Ranger Station (in East Kazakhstan) was transformed to Markakol Nature Reserve.

In 2000, the government established a moratorium for the industrial harvest of wood in all forests and groves of Kazakhstan. Wood harvest is permitted only on damaged sites for sanitary reasons. This regulation has generated two problems: deficit of wood fuel in the rural regions of the country and, as a consequence, a sharp increase in illegal cutting. Significant funding was made available for 2001 to rehabilitate the Band Groves along Irtysh River and insular groves of Kostanai Province which had been extremely damaged by wildfires in recent last years.


Arkhipov, V.A., J.G. Goldammer, K.A. Khaidarov, and B.M. Moukanov. 2000. Overview on forest fires in Kazakhstan. International Forest Fire News No. 24, 43-48.
Gvozdetski N.A., and V.A. Nikolaev. 1971. Kazakhstan. 296 p. <in Russian>

Contact addresses:

Dr. Karim Khaidarov
Bourabai Research Institution
Lenin st.17-53
Borovoye, Aqmola oblast, 476433

Tel/fax: ++7-31630-71781 (Borovoye)
Tel: ++7-3272-220571 (Almaty)
e-mail: karim@mail.kz


Vladimir Arkhipov
Kirov st.58
Shutschinsk, 476410


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