Myanmar: Forest Fire Prevention and Management (IFFN No. 20)

Forest Fire Prevention and Management in Myanmar

(IFFN No. 20 – March 1999, p. 21-28)


Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, with a total land area of 676,553 km2. It is situated between 9° 58’N-28° 29’N and 92° 10′-101° 10’E. Its length from North to South is approximately 2090 km; the width is up to 925 km. Myanmar possesses a broad spectrum of ecosystems, ranging from snow-capped peaks to tropical rain forests, the semi-arid belt and coastal marine ecosystems. It has a total coastline of about 2,832 km.


Because of its length from North to South, Myanmar possesses several variant climatic zones. Its climate is principally of the Tropical Monsoon type, which is mainly influenced by the seasonal Southwest Monsoon.

Three distinct seasons occur: the Hot Season from mid-February to mid-May; the Rainy Season from mid-May to mid-October; and the Cool Season from mid-October to mid-February.

Apart from the Temperate and Sub-Temperate regions to the North and higher altitudes to the West and East, the mean temperature ranges from 32° C in the Coastal and Deltaic areas and 21° C in the inland lowland areas. Maximum temperatures reach up to 40° C in the central Dry Zone during the peak Hot Season.

Annual rainfall ranges from 500 mm to 1000 mm in the central part of the country, to 5000 mm and above in the coastal and wetter regions. Apart from a few scattered showers in late May and June, the highest precipitation is during July to September, with the monsoon tailing off around mid-October. Rainfall does occur occasionally in November, as fall-out from storms that come in from the East.

Unlike those countries that lie within the Equatorial Climatic Zone, Myanmar does not receive rainfall all the year round. It has instead a wet period that lasts for about five months and a dry spell for the remaining seven months. This pattern has remained more or less unchanged.


The country is traversed from North to South by three major mountain ranges, which are extensions of the eastern extremity of the Himalayan Range. About two-thirds of the country is mountainous.

These ranges form four major river systems flowing from North to South; and the cultivable lands lie mainly along these river valleys and their expansive deltas.

Forest Situation

Influenced by a wide range of latitudes, topography and climatic factors, the forests are diverse and vary in composition and structure; and constitute invaluable ecosystems that conserve a wide range of plant and animal species, genes and micro-organisms.

The actual forested area is about 344,237 km2 or 50.87% of the total land area, of which 43.34% comprises closed forests and 7.53% degraded forests. The remaining 49.13 % comprises 22.82% forests affected by shifting cultivation, 2.01 % water bodies and 24.30% non-forested areas.

Of the actual forested area, 16% is Tropical Evergreen, 26% Hill and Temperate Evergreen, 34% Lower Mixed and Moist Upper Mixed Deciduous, 10% Dry, 5% Deciduous Dipterocarp, 5% Dry Upper Mixed Deciduous and 4% Tidal, Beach and Dune Type forests. The actual forested areas are predominantly natural.

Scientific Forest Management was initiated in Myanmar around 1856, when the Exploitation-cum-Cultural System known as the Myanmar Selection System (MSS) was established, in order to assure the sustainability of natural forests in perpetuity. This system is still being adhered to steadfastly.

Inspite of the large resource base, the Ministry of Forestry has prescribed an extremely conservative yearly quota of timber to be harvested from the forests. The Annual Allowable Cut (AAC) for Teak (Tectona grandis) was put at 609,500 cubic metres, and that for non-Teak-hardwoods at 2,463,600 cubic metres. Timber elephants still play the major role in stumping and dragging of logs, as they cause the least disturbance to the environment and the biodiversity, and do not necessitate the construction of extensive road networks.

Establishment of forest plantations applying the “Taungya” method which was in fact the fore-runner of Agro-Forestry and Community Forestry originated in Myanmar. At the beginning, plantations were thought to be the answer to forest rehabilitation; but with time, Myanmar foresters came to realize the adverse impact plantations brought upon the soil and water resource, the environment and biodiversity conservation as a whole. Likely plans for large-scale plantations were abandoned and they were established instead on a small scale as compensatory measure, with Teak being the choice species.

Plantations are thinned heavily till they reach the age of about 25 years, leaving only around 40 trees per acre. Silviculture operations are carried out till the trees reach the age of 40 years, after which they are regarded as natural forests and allowed to merge with their natural surroundings.

Myanmar foresters have never supported the contention that forest resources are easily renewable, but have held onto the belief that they are in fact critical. This being the reason why Myanmar today is one of the few countries that can claim possession of expansive natural forests, a wealth of biodiversity, a stable environment and a balanced climate.

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Fig. 1. Open dry dipterocarp (indaing) forest in Central Myanmar: These forests are subjected to annual fires, often burning two or three times per year on the same site. Photo: J.G.Goldammer (GFMC).

Evolution of Forest Fire Prevention Concepts

Basic concepts regarding forest fire prevention were initiated in Myanmar together with the advent of scientific forest management. Due to the experiences of severe forest fires in the North American continent, it was deduced that forests definitely needed to be protected from fires. It was generally accepted that prevention of forest fires was very important, and that invaluable benefits could be accrued from this vital function.

In 1896, the Inspector-General of Forests of India and Burma stated in an article published in the “Indian Forester”, that the Government of British India and Burma commended the forest officials and their subordinates for their stalwart efforts in protecting expansive areas of all types of forests. That through promulgation of laws, educating the people, issuing relevant instructions, penalizing offenders etc., the public have become aware of their obligation to cooperate and actively participate.

In the May 1896 issue of the “Indian Forester”, a forester by the name of Mr. Slade wrote an article titled “Too Much Fire Protection in Burma”. Hitherto, fire protection had generally followed plantation work and there was no doubt of the benefit derived from the protection of plantations in their early years. But Slade’s argument was against the marked tendency to advocate the enlargement of fire protected areas and fire protection of “all” Teak forests. Slade pointed out that forest fires in Burma in no way resembled the huge fires of America; that forest fires in Burma were mere ground fires, slowly but surely advancing and consuming the dry leaves which cover the ground to a depth of a few inches or less; that as a rule fierce fires are quite exceptional; that a fire once started, may burn for weeks and travel from one end of the country to the other.

Slade reasoned that as annual fires had become so constant and regular, it had become natural to Teak, transforming it into a fire-hardy species. He also rationalized that as all other vegetation suffers very much more severely in their younger stages than Teak, the annual fires cannot be considered other than as an agent favouring the growth of Teak at the expense of almost all other species; concluding that natural regeneration of Teak over large areas without the prior assistance of fire, is an impossibility. He further pointed out that by allowing the mature plantations to be burnt over annually, the cost of protection could be saved, as the cost of subsequent weedings would be reduced. Also that though forest fires do destroy a certain amount of valuable material such as logs and dead trees, they do an immense amount of good by destroying decayed stumps and branches, which in a fire protected forest would be sources of fungoid growth and the breeding grounds of many insect pests.

Finally, he recommended that the general extension of fire protection over thousands of acres which cannot be watched over in detail, not be undertaken; and that existing firelines be curtailed so as to exclude older plantations and that effective protection be prescribed for small defined areas on which a fairly good stock of young Teak seedlings had been revealed. Also that as the saplings on each protected area reach the stage of immunity to fire, protection should be stopped and other areas be put under protection. That the total area be limited by the number of seedlings and the amount of supervision available.

Slade concluded by stating that he did not mean to advocate the abolition of fire protection; but rather desired to deprecate its general extension to huge areas of forests, irrespective of the state of forest as regards natural regeneration. He held the view that the annually recurring ground fires should be considered as friends and not natural enemies, except during a certain period (of the existence of Teak); that fire is one of the forest officer’s most useful agents as long as it is his servant and not his master.

Slade’s article stirred a great deal of controversy, leading to two schools of thought. One was for the general expansion of fire protection to large forested areas; while the other was for exclusion of natural forests and mature plantations, and the inclusion of only young plantations and areas on which fairly good stocks of young seedlings had been revealed.

Subsequent Developments

In 1897, it was decided upon the advice of the then Inspector-General of Forests, that fire protection should be extended only as far as funds and administrative considerations permitted. This resulted in an increase of areas under protection, provoking a great deal of dissention among the Burma Forest Officials, and opposition to continued protection of all classes of forests steadily increased.

In 1905, a forester named Mr. Troup published the enumeration of the stock carried out in two adjoining plots in the Tharyarwady forests. One plot had been protected successively for 19 years, and the other had been burnt over annually. The findings were as follows:

  • A much larger proportion of unsound and dead stems to sound stems in the protected plot.
  • Ten times as many seedlings in the unprotected plot as in the protected plot.
  • About half of the sound stems in the protected area were in danger of suppression and would probably disappear, while those in the unprotected area were mostly sound, well grown, without sign of fire damage, and in little danger of suppression.

He concluded that with continued protection, Teak must eventually disappear from the protected plot.

In 1906, Mr. Beadon-Bryant, the then Chief Conservator of Forests visited the above areas, and arranged to have further counting in the previously counted plots and in six others. This generally confirmed the conclusion reached at by Mr. Troup.

In 1907, Mr. Beadon-Bryant compiled a memorandum on fire conservancy in Burma. As a result of many tours, he held the view that the combination of the Selection System with fire protection was gradually but surely killing out the Teak in the moist forests of Burma. He recommended to classify the, forests of Burma into three categories:

  1. Forests in which the valuable species are found with an undergrowth of evergreen, dense, periodically and gregariously flowering Bamboos, as well as forests of a moist evergreen nature, where with the aid of fire protection, evergreen species are encroaching on Teak.
  2. Forests with an undergrowth of less dense Bamboos which flower sporadically as well as gregariously and therefore are more favourable to reproduction.
  3. Forests with an undergrowth of shrubs, herbaceous plants and grasses only, in which the more valuable species occur in a mixed or pure state.

He recommended that fire protection should be abandoned in the category (a) forests; that it would most probably be beneficial in many category (b) forests, though perhaps not possible to maintain owing to the manner in which categories (a) and (b) are intermixed; that protection would certainly be beneficial in category (c) forests where it should be continued and extended. In October that same year, the local government issued orders that in each Circle or Division, suitable areas of sufficient size should be selected, where the abandonment of fire protection could be carefully watched and the system extended from year to year, if results justified such action.

In 1911-12, the Inspector-General of Forests, Sir George Hart, recommended that the classification advocated by Mr. Beadon-Bryant be carried out in every Forest Division of Burma, and that subject to certain reservation, fire protection should be abandoned in category (a) forests. He suggested that fire protection should be given up for a period to be followed by a period of protection; and pointed out that the results of fire protection might likely prove to be incommensurate with the expenditure involved.

Reduction of fire protection was slow inspite of the opinion of a vast majority of forest officers in favour of considerable abandonment. In 1923-24 however, the fire-protected area was a mere 142 square miles.

A section of foresters was even in favour of giving up protection of young regeneration areas in favour of early burning and repeated burning. But the disadvantages of this method, in that it delays the closing of the canopy had already been proven. At the same time it was felt that unless fire protection in young regeneration areas can be absolutely certain, early burning formed a better insurance against the damage from late fires.

Regarding fire protection in dry forests, it had already been proven beyond a doubt that protection was beneficial; but the view was that it still needed to be proven that such operations were financially justifiable.

As a result of the above developments and the global economic depression, fire protection in the Natural Forests of Burma was totally stopped from 1930 onwards; and protection was carried out only in plantations. However, protection was continued in the young regeneration areas, and measures, were undertaken to prevent fires from occurring in the Reserved Forests and adjacent forest areas whether intentionally, accidentally, or through negligence; and also to alleviate the scale of damage and loss in the event of a forest fire occurring.

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Fig. 2. Wildfires sweeping into villages and townships are a common problem all over the dry tropics. The economic damages and humanitarian impacts are very severe and must be encountered by public education and information campaigns. Photo: J.G.Goldammer

Forest Fire Conservancy Measures

Since the late 1880s, it had been decreed that the Forest Department was obligated to liaise with the Local Administrative Bodies in order to coordinate the issuance of Forest Fire Prevention Instructions for compliance by forest officers. Based on those instructions, the Local Administrative Bodies would issue general instructions for officials from other ministries to comply with, and to support the Forest Department’s efforts at fire protection.

In 1944, The Statesman Press of Calcutta published the Forest Manual which included the Instructions for the Control of Fire Conservancy Operations that formed the basis for future Fire Protection Measures. Forest officials were held responsible for the prevention of fires in the fire-protected areas within their domain. They were also to be directly responsible for fires that encroached from adjoining areas. As such, they were obligated to construct fire lines, fire traces and safety strips as necessary.

Fire Conservancy Plans: All Forest Regions had to draw up Fire Conservancy Plans once every five years. In doing so, they needed to liaise and coordinate between adjacent regions. Detailed maps indicating relevant information had to be prepared and attached. There also had to be a clear understanding as to who would be responsible for what and to what extent.

People’s Participation: The strong point of Fire Conservancy in Myanmar has always been the awareness and willing cooperation of the people. From the onset, foresters had been instructed to do their utmost to win the support of the local people; to refrain from restricting the people unnecessarily, not to obstruct the people from going into the forest to harvest their daily needs; most importantly, to avoid any action that would cause the people to want to harm the forests; and to at all times, work to make the people understand the multiple benefits that could be accrued from the forests. In situations where Divisional Forest Officials felt that certain rules laid down were too stringent, they were obligated to report their observations to their superiors in writing.

On the other hand, people who lived in villages near the Reserve Forests, especially those who were employed by the State or received financial support from the Government, were responsible to report incidences of forest fires and to suppress any fires occurring in adjacent areas, so that the fires did not spread into the Reserve areas. People who had permits to earn a livelihood within the forests, or practise shifting-cultivation (Taungya) were likewise responsible. In the event that any of the above individuals were found to be responsible for causing fires for any reason, they were likely to have their permits revoked. Finally, it was clearly stated that any responsible persons found lacking in their duties would likely be prosecuted legally.

Assistance from Police Officers: The Governor-General issued official instructions to all departmental officials from the respective ministries, including Police Officers, prescribing official responsibilities relating to forest fire protection. Any Police Officer who had reason to believe that a person or persons held intentions to cause forest fires, was empowered to apprehend anyone without a warrant. The Governor-General also issued requests to all Divisional-level Police Officers, to enlighten their subordinates, village headmen and village elders, regarding the essence of the Forest Law and other forest fire related instructions. Thus, the Police Force has traditionally played a vital support role in strengthening the functions of the Forest Department.

Awarding of Rewards: Divisional Administrative and Forest Officials were authorized to offer monetary rewards for information and assistance that would enable them to apprehend culprits who were guilty of causing forest fires. At the same time, officials were made to understand that they should not depend solely on the enforcement of the tenets of the Forest Law; that although it was important for the people to be aware of the legal implications regarding fire protection, it was even more important that the goodwill of the people not be impaired; that departmental officials from various ministries, together with the Divisional Administrative Officials and their subordinates could play a constructive role in achieving those goals. This was in fact, the inception of an integrated approach towards Forest Fire protection and Forest Management in general.

The Post-Independence Period

When Myanmar gained its Independence in 1948, it was infested with widespread insurgencies, as several politically oriented parties and ethnic groups started rebelling against the Government. As a result, Forest Management and Forest Fire Protection was restricted to the assessable forest areas.

Forest Divisions were the basic management units, and their territories were demarcated according to the Watersheds. Based upon the Five Year Plans drawn up by the Forest Regional Headquarters, The Forest Divisions had to draw up yearly Fire Protection Plans, to be in line with unique situations prevailing within their divisions. They also had to issue local Fire Protection Orders and Instructions annually.

In 1959, the Forest Management Guidelines for Subordinate Staff was published in the Burmese language. It was mainly based upon the Forest Manual, and fire protection likewise was based upon the Fire Conservancy Operation Instructions.

Although fire protection plans excluded natural forests, and focused on plantations, young regeneration areas and ecologically sensitive areas, special emphasis was placed upon the protection of successfully regenerated areas in the Central Dry Zone. Regarding the period that fire protection should be provided to plantations, it was decided that according to Myanmar’s situation, it should be five years for Teak, and ten to fifteen years for Eucalyptus and Pine.

Contemporary Trends

Fire Conservancy in Myanmar has more or less followed the old trends. As in the days of old, fire protection being a costly undertaking, available resources is still the determining factor as to the extent that protection can be achieved. According to available data, in 1997-98 the planned target to be put under protection was 153,468 hectars, out of which 53.05% could be protected effectively.

As had been indicated earlier, peoples’ awareness and wilful participation has been the strength behind successful protection from forest fires in Myanmar. But slash-and-burn cultivation (Taungya) has been and age-old practice with many ethnic races who live in the mountainous areas of the country, and is still being practised widely. This is the main cause behind forest fires occurring in Myanmar. However, as it is carried out merely on a subsistence scale, and as the areas that fall under this practice are buffered in by the natural forests, the spreading of fire to adjoining areas is minimal. Besides, burning is normally done under close supervision of the villagers.

As all forest estates, apart from those on private lands and community forests, are owned by the State, Forest Fire Brigades are not organised by the private sector as is the case in many countries; but protection measures are instead undertaken solely by the Forest Department, in cooperation with other ministerial departments and the local people. The fire hazardous period is normally for about four months, from mid-January to mid-May, when public awareness campaigns are carried out through various mediums, and villagers are rallied to partake in fire-watch duties and assist in various pre-emptive activities such as construction of fire lines and fire traces, prescribed burning, etc.

In 1992, the new Forest Law was enacted, defining the offenses clearly and prescribing more severe penalties for offenders. In 1992-93, Forest Conservation Committees were formed at the National, State/Division, District and Township levels, thus involving the related ministries, the Chairmen of the State/ Division, District and Township Administrative bodies as well as the local military commanders in forest management and forest fire conservancy responsibilities. In 1996-97, a new directorate called the Dry Zone Regreening Department was formed and it is to be solely responsible for the rehabilitation of once forested areas of the Central Dry Zone, and fire protection measures.

Myanmar Foresters have traditionally placed prevention above suppression of forest fires, as they had understood that forest fires once out of control were nigh on impossible to suppress. The priority focus was therefore placed upon the monitoring of combustible fuel, and this was normally controlled by prescribed burning in situations where surface fires had not consumed them.

Because the forests are predominantly natural, and mostly of the Tropical Evergreen type, the forest floor is naturally damp and the undergrowth mostly moist and green. The leaves and branches that fall each year are consumed by the annual surface fires, so fuel does not normally accumulate enough to pose a threat. Also, as the annual fires are mostly running fires they cause very little or no adverse impact to the soil, and do not consume the forest litter to the extent of depriving the forest soils from its nutrients or its capability to conserve the water resource.

The forest fires that do occur are mostly localised and peter out in the moist surroundings. However, realization that the climate change factor and abnormal climatic occurrences could bring about changes to the forest situation, has led to cause considerable concern. The Forest Divisions have been instructed to conduct detailed inventories of their forests, so that Forest Management and Fire Conservancy Operations can be reappraised and redesigned to suit prevailing situations.

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Fig. 3. Fire suppression training in Myanmar: Handtools are most useful in combating low-to medium-intensity surface fires. Photo: J.G.Goldammer


The frequency and intensity of forest and bush fires around the globe in recent years have become alarming. Even developed countries with all their scientific and technological advances have not escaped the wrath of severe fire disasters. Modern methods such as aerial spraying of chemicals, water bombing have proven to be ineffective when applied against fires that have run out of control; and even the most developed of nations have ultimately had to rely on nature to intervene or to take its course.

It is universally accepted that forest fire threats and incidences had increased as a result of the depletion and degradation of the forests; as canopies of once densely forested areas are open up to the sun, it leads to the drying of and change in the soil texture. Myanmar’s good fortune in not having ever experienced severe forest fires, nor rampant natural disasters, lies in its having preserved the forests in their natural state.

It is heartening to learn of recent positive developments advocating the preservation of natural forests, promotion of natural regeneration, establishment of plantations with mixed species so as to recreate nature in place of the old monoculture practice, and to give preference to native species above exotic ones. In the tropical regions, preservation and replication of nature alone can alleviate the threat of severe forest fires and natural calamities.


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Mr. U. Myat Thinn
Advisor to the Minister Ministry of Forestry
West Gyogone, Insein

IFFN No. 20
Country Notes

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