Fire Situation in Mongolia (IFFN No. 26)

Fire Situation in Mongolia

(IFFN No. 26 – January 2002, p. 75-83)


Mongolia is located in Central Asia with an area of 1 565 000 km2 and a population of 2.3 million, which makes Mongolia one of the least populated countries in the world. The country borders Russia in the North and China in the South. Mongolia is a highland country located deep within the interior of Eurasia and has a marked continental climate with poor soil fertility, scanty surface water resources and harsh natural conditions.

Forests and grasslands play an important role in the economic development of the country. Forest cover is 12.5 million ha or 8.1 percent of the Mongolian territory. Forests consist mostly of larch (Larix sibirica), pine (Pinus sylvestris), birch (Betula platyphylla), cedar (Pinus sibirica), spruce (Picea spp.) and saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron). Grassland covers 70 percent of all territory. It is assumed that most of today’s steppe vegetation is on former forest sites that have been degraded by fire. The Mongolian climate and geography, coupled with its economic and social structure, account for its considerable vulnerability to natural disasters. Winters are often very cold and springs are difficult with blizzards, tornadoes and regular wildfires. Heavy rains and floods occur in summer and heavy snowfalls occur in autumn; frosts and blizzards are common. Thus, throughout the year the country is under pressure from these natural disasters.

Wildfires constitute a major factor that determines spatial and temporal dynamics of forest ecosystems. Out of the total of ca. 17 million ha of forest land, 4 million ha are disturbed to varying degrees, either by fire (95 percent) or by logging (5 percent). Logged areas have increased drastically over the past 25 years. More than 600 000 ha of timber harvest have not recovered.

Fire environment, fire regimes and the ecological role of fire

The highest fire hazard is found in the submontane larch (Larix sibirica) and pine (Pinus sylvestris) stands growing on seasonally freezing soils. These stands are distributed on Khentey, East Khentey and Khubsugul foothills that are characterised by an extremely continental climate. During the year, air temperature fluctuations can amount to 90°C, with the summer maximum being +40°C. Annual precipitation ranges from 250 to 350 mm. In exceptionally dry years, precipitation is less than 200 mm.

Forest fire statistics for the period 1963 to 1997 (see also Fig.1) reveal that the majority of fires burned within the central and eastern parts of the forested area. This can be attributed to the predominance of highly fire susceptible (highly flammable) pine and larch stands. Moreover, economic activity is much higher here as compared to other parts of the region. Extreme fire seasons are caused by long droughts. Fires burn from April to July under such conditions. The average fire season usually has two peaks. One peak is during spring (from March to mid June) and accounts for 80 per cent of all fires. The other fire peak falls within a short period in autumn (September to October) and accounts for 5 to 8 percent of all fires. In summer, fires occur very rarely (only 2 to 5 percent of the total) because of heavy rains.

The intra-annual distribution of fires has been documented by seven forest protection air bases for the Khanngai and Trans-Baikal forest zones for the period 1985 to 1994 (Table 1). In these zones, fire activity is the highest in April and May with 33.3 percent and 48.1 percent of their total number in a fire season, respectively. Fires start in late March and early April, immediately after snowmelt when forest fuels are drying rapidly on southern- and western-facing slopes.

Steppe fires under certain weather conditions often invade the adjacent forest-steppe and sub-taiga zones. In the mountain forest belt, especially in the high elevations, lightning fires are most common. Lightning storm activity increases considerably at the end of May and in early June. High fire danger is largely due to the prevalence of light-needled conifers in stands adjacent to steppe areas. These are mainly pine stands with mixed herbaceous ground cover, which is characterized by high fire danger in spring and autumn. Steppe vegetation and surrounding pine stands attain high flammability practically simultaneously. Fire occurrence depends on forest type, precipitation distribution and availability of ignition sources. Fires are frequent in pine and larch stands of the forest-steppe and sub-taiga zones, while they are rarer in larch and Siberian pine stands of the mountain taiga. 

Table 1. Intra-annual distribution of forest fire distribution in Mongolia, 1985-1992.

Local Airbase Month
  March April May June July Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Total
Ar. khalgai 2 18 8 2 4 34
Khovsgol 19 23 11 2 2 57
Bulgan 11 58 117 5 3 3 197
Selenge 27 52 8 3 9 1 100
Khentij 10 19 23 3 55
Dornod 1 9 6 1 17
Ulan-Baatar 25 24 7 2 7 65
Total 24 175 253 34 2 10 26 1 525
Percentage 4.6 33.3 48.1 6.5 0.4 1.9 5.0 0.2 100

In one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, it is difficult to get accurate information on fire causes. It is known, however, that during the main fire seasons (spring and late fall), no natural fire causes exist. The recent increase in the number of fires is related to the opening of markets once highly controlled or restricted. The vast majority of fires are not deliberately set to clear land. Rather, it is a function of carelessness. One example is the collection of elk antlers for sale to European and Chinese markets. During the previous regime, a single, state run enterprise managed this market under strict controls and guidelines. Today, it is open to virtually anyone.

Fires start for three reasons:

  1. Antler collection starts in the bitter cold of February when fire is simply a survival tool.
  2. Sparks from vehicle exhaust pipes in remote forests.
  3. Tracer bullets left by the Russian military have entered the game hunting market and are used to hunt elk for the blood antlers which have a higher value in the market place.

The most obvious consequence of frequent and intense fires is the loss of forested land. The current fire pattern is affecting 14 percent of this resource annually. The brief growing season and low growth capacity of the trees means that these forests may take 200 years or more to regenerate. In addition to their commercial value, these forests are a precious ecological resource. They contain the sources of virtually all rivers in the country including the inflow to Lake Baikal (Russia), the largest freshwater lake in the world. They protect soil, rangelands, provide habitat for wildlife and serve as windbreaks.

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

In an average year, 50-60 forest fires and 80-100 steppe fires occur annually. About 95 percent of steppe and forest fires in Mongolia are caused by human activities. Winters and springs from 1996 to 1998 were extremely dry and were lacking snow in most areas. From late February to early June of these years, Mongolia suffered from large-scale forest and steppe fires that devastated large parts of the country. During these fire episodes, 29 people died, 82 people were injured and 11 700 livestock were killed. Also, 218 family houses, 1 066 communication facilities, 750 fences and 26.3 million ha of pasture and forest burned. The total costs of property losses amounted to 820.2 million MN¥ (Mongolian Tughrik). Ecological and economic damage was estimated as 1 850.5 million MN¥ (December 1999 value: ca. $US 1.8 million).

Fire management organization

Until recently, a branch of the military known as the Civil Defence centrally managed fire events in Mongolia. The military maintained all training regimes, equipment and personnel with virtually no support to local communities. With the transition and associated economic difficulties, this centrally managed firefighting system has collapsed. Perhaps the single most important contributor to the increase in fire spread is the grounding of the Aerial Patrol Service. In 1969 the Mongolian Fire Protection and Aerial Patrol Service was established to provide early detection and rapid initial attack on fires. This Service was a Soviet-style aerial detection and airborne firefighting programme. The Service was staffed by 200 to 300 smokejumpers and helicopter rappellers; including a fleet of helicopters for helitack and tactical aerial support. The aerial forces operated out of seven bases distributed throughout the fire-prone regions of northern Mongolia. Smokejumpers on routine aerial patrols detected a high percentage of the fires and handled approximately 90 percent of the suppression workload. In the early 1990’s, when the communist government and Soviet financial support abruptly disappeared, the Mongolian aerial program sharply declined. At present, Mongolians cannot afford to maintain and fly their aerial patrol aircraft. Instead, they must rely on NOAA satellite imagery as their primary early warning system with a spatial resolution of 1.1 km2. The decline of the aerial program through the mid-1990’s resulted in the creation of a “fire suppression void” and no doubt greatly contributed to the horrendous fire losses experienced in the 1996 and 1997 fire season

Immediately following the 1996 fires, Mongolia received assistance from international organizations to help local people recover from the losses. The German government contributed to these efforts in the form of an Emergency Fire Aid project carried out in the northern and eastern parts of the country (October-December 1996). Since then, the government has been working to find long-term solutions to improve fire management. In a first step, the parliament passed a law designed to organize and improve firefighting efforts at all levels.

In February of 1998, the German and Mongolian governments signed an agreement to start an Integrated Fire Management Project to be implemented over the next three years (1997-2000). The GTZ, responsible for the German contribution, provided long and short-term experts, support staff, training and equipment.

The project region selected by the Integrated Fire Management Project is the Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area and its buffer zones – one of the harder hit areas during the 1996 fires. A primary task was the establishment of a fire management plan compatible with the protected area goals and the responsibilities of the local communities. Fire Management Units in the local communities received professional training and basic hand tools suitable for the regional conditions. Information and Training Centres provided the necessary infrastructure for fire prevention activities, management information, training exercises, dispatch and field organization.

Community involvement in fire management activities

The IFM project supported Mongolia by strengthening local capacities to effectively address the issues of fire prevention, pre-suppression and suppression. This is accomplished by helping to organize cooperative efforts between protected area staff and local and national administrations responsible for fire management. Additional goals include establishing the necessary infrastructure, providing training in-country and abroad and by including all stakeholders in the planning and implementation of fire management activities.

Integrated Fire Management, like other community-based programs, focuses on flexible, pragmatic approaches designed to support local people’s role in resource management. Specifically, it entails the application of the art and science of modern wildland fire technologies and practices to the local fire problem – i.e. the community level.

In the development of the program, the IFM Project started with the philosophy that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Hence, the most effective fire suppression strategy is an effective fire prevention program. In the summer of 1998, the IFM project began pilot activities in the buffer zone communities surrounding the Khan Khentii Special Protected Area. Specifically targeted were the potential multipliers including Information Training Centre (ITC) “extension” officers, educators, protected area rangers and key community persons. This cooperative effort led to a number of educational materials that were developed and introduced:

  • A fire prevention curriculum for school children.
  • A fire prevention video.
  • A ranger’s handbook to be used as an outreach tool in remote areas.
  • A coloring book for small children.
  • A fire mascot to carry the prevention message.

The central focus of pre-suppression work has been the drafting of a fire management plan for the protected area administration and local communities.

Suppression goals include (1) the establishment of fire management crews, (2) provision of equipment and (3) the development of a locally run “Fire Training Programme” adapted to Mongolian conditions of fuels, fire behavior and available suppression resources and logistics. In the spring of 1998, six Soum (district) governors in the protected area buffer zone formed fifteen-person (15) fire management units (FMU’s – or suppression crews) for their respective Soums. Each crew consists of a crew boss, assistant crew boss and thirteen unemployed volunteers. The crew is jointly managed through a Memorandum of Understanding between the local community and the protected area administration. After establishment of the crews, the project identified equipment to match the fuel conditions. Fuel conditions throughout northeastern Mongolia closely resemble the fuel types of the western United States, British Columbia and interior Alaska: tough steppe grass with deep dense roots, brush, larch, pine, spruce, birch, moss and muskeg like valley bottoms. GTZ equipped the crews with fire swatters, fire shovels, pulaskis, adze hoes, Council-type fire rakes, backpack pumps, crosscut saws, chainsaw and hardhats. Each crew has been equipped with personal portable radios, a vehicle mobile radio and mobile repeaters for communications with the dispatch centre. Stationary repeaters are being installed to link the Soum dispatch centers with the national coordination centre in Ulaan Baatar.

Starting in March 1999, the project assisted Mongolian fire specialists in developing a series of training materials, including a 32-hour Basic Firefighter Course with accompanying Instructor’s Manual, Student Workbook, training videos and Crewboss Manual. The training programs were adapted from existing Mongolian training and the basic courses used to train American wildland firefighters: Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior (S-190), Firefighter Training (S-130) and basic Incident Command System concepts. Approximately one half of the course was conducted in the field, including “practice fires” for mop-up and a live fire exercise on the final day. Crews were instructed in the bump-up progressive crew method of fireline construction. A fire instructor’s training course for Mongolian instructors was established. In a subsequent phase, we observed and coached Mongolian instructors as they trained “rookie FMU crew members” and community (Soum) fire support crews. Due to unusually high precipitation during the winter, however, the project has been unable to evaluate crew performance on fires.

Wildfire database

Since the establishment of a NOAA satellite receiving station at the National Remote Sensing Centre of Mongolia in 1987, the staff of the Centre has developed and tested technologies for natural disaster monitoring, such as forest and steppe fire, drought, floods, meteorological phenomena etc.

The recent fire danger situation in forest and steppe zones challenged staff of the National Remote Sensing Centre to test and improve their operational technology to quickly process and transfer fire locations and other data to disaster-related and administrative organizations. In the last three years, 788 fires were detected primarily by satellite data and thus millions of money was saved. The accuracy of detected hot spots as a fire is estimated to be 76.9 percent of the total number of cases between 1995 and 1999.


Figure 1. Number of fires and area burned in Mongolia 1963-1997

It is clear that Mongolia is experiencing a dangerous increase in wildfires. From 1981 to 1995, forest and steppe fires burned an average of 1.74 million ha annually. In 1996 and 1997, the area affected by fire was 10.7 and 12.4 million ha respectively – an increase of more than six-fold. The areas hardest hit by these increases have been the forested regions. The typical forest fire season (1981-95) swept through some 140 000 ha (on average 8 percent of the total area burned), already a large area. However in 1996 and 1997, this figure radically increased to nearly 18 times the previous average – some 2.5 million ha annually, corresponding to ca. 22 percent of the total land area affected by fire. In these two years alone more forested areas burned than were harvested over the last 65 years. Figures 2 and 3 provide maps showing the forest and steppe areas burned in 1996 and 1997. Figure 4 shows the area burned in Mongolia during spring 2000. The fire statistical data for the 1980s and 1990s are given in Tables 2 and 3.


Figure 2. Forest and steppe fire map of Mongolia for the spring fire season 1996. Source: Computer Information Center, Mongolia.


Figure 3. Forest and steppe fire map of Mongolia for the spring fire season 1997. Source: Computer Information Center, Mongolia.

 Table 2. Wildfire statistics of Mongolia, 1981-1989.


Total No. of Fires on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land Total Area Burned on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land
Area of Forest Burned 


Area of Other Wooded Land and Other Land Burned
Human Causes 



Natural Causes


Unknown Causes 

No. ha ha ha No. No. No.
1981 94 169 200 4 600 164 600
1982 109 1 100 000 156 300 943 700
1983 95 245 400 87 400 158 000
1984 116 513 900 156 200 357 700
1985 99 1 896 700 3 400 1 893 300
1986 204 3 187 000 30 600 3 156 400
1987 233 1 228 000 143 300 1 084 700
1988 142 243 000 2 300 240 700
1989 192 1 281 000 51 000 1 230 000
Average 160 1 096 022 82 400 1 060 000      


 Table 3. Wildfire statistics of Mongolia, 1990-1999.


Total No. of Fires on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land Total Area Burned on Forest, Other Wooded Land, & Other Land
Area of Forest Burned 


Area of Other Wooded Land and Other Land Burned
Human Causes 



Natural Causes


Unknown Causes 

No. ha ha ha No. No. No.
1990 129 2 577 000 55 000 2 522 000      
1991 101 6 099 000 639 000 6 035 100      
1992 171 1 541 000 390 700 1 123 300      
1993 63 2 763 000 202 000 2 561 000      
1994 126 3 600 000 165 000 3 435 000      
1995 120 168 570 34 200 134 370      
1996 417 10 194 400 2 363 600 7 830 800      
1997 239 12 440 000 2 710 00 9 730 000      
1998 132 5 200 000 700 000 4 500 000      
1999 76 3 130 000 30 000 3 100 000      
Average 157 4 771 297 731 950 40 971 570      



Figure 4. Forest and steppe area burned in Mongolia in spring 2000 (date of satellite image: 24 April 2000). The total area burned was 2.87 million ha. Source: A. Sukhinin, Sukachev Institute for Forest, Fire Laboratory, Krasnoyarsk, Russian Federation.


Figure 5. Forest and steppe area burned in Mongolia in spring 2001. The total area burned was 0.84 million ha. Source: Computer Information Center, Mongolia.


Figure 6. Open, park-like pine stand (Pinus sylvestris) in the steppe-forest transition zone in Mongolia. The pine forests are regularly affected by surface fires. Photo: GFMC.

Public policies

The underlying causes for a dramatic increase of forest and steppe fires in Mongolia are deeply rooted in the changing socio-economic conditions of the country. The government has recently taken significant steps in this direction through the establishment of a Fire Management Agency. Pursuant to newly enacted legislation, the Mongolian Civil Defence and State Police will transfer their responsibilities to the new agency including associated resources (personnel, budget and equipment).

National endeavors to strengthen fire management capabilities of government institutions as well as local communities have been supported by the Integrated Fire Management (IFM) Project. The GTZ project was terminated at the end of 2000. The FAO in 2000 granted a Technical Cooperation Project (TCP) to improve fire management in Mongolia that will be implemented in 2001. It is planned that FAO and GTZ will collaborate in assisting the country to upgrade its fire management capabilities. For future development the areas of particular concern are:

  • National Oversight – Appropriate oversight will be required: (1) to ensure quality control and preparedness; (2) to help with the standardization of training, procedures, and safety; (3) to provide technical assistance and specialised training; (4) to facilitate cooperation/coordination among agencies; (5) to evaluate training and determine need for additional training; and 6) to determine fire management program needs.
  • National Level Training Centre – Mongolia has a major and complex fire problem. Only a handful of firefighters has received basic fire training. To effectively fight complex and large fires require training beyond the basic level. Wildland firefighters in developed and some undeveloped countries take several higher courses that are more specialized. Large and complex fires require a higher level of understanding of fire behavior, strategy and tactics, and organization. ICS requires multi-agency training of ICS principles.
  • Coordination and Cooperation – A remaining challenge is the coordination of management planning with other institutions and agencies responsible for fire management at the regional and national levels. The project has not had sufficient time to adequately address this need. Nevertheless, experiences tell us that this kind of coordination is an integral part of the decentralization process in Mongolia and will require profound changes at all levels of affected government.
  • Communications System – All interagency team members need a common radio system – one they can program to an incident fire frequency. All agencies should be linked to local and regional dispatch centers.
  • Early Warning Systems – Faster detection means smaller fires, a need for fewer firefighters and greatly reduced expenses associated with firefighting. A system of staffed observers, ground and air, would significantly increase detection capability and significantly speed up fire crew attack and containment time.

IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Johann G. Goldammer
The Global Fire Monitoring Center

c/o Freiburg University
D – 79085 Freiburg

Tel:                            ++49-761-808011
Fax:                           ++49-761-808012


The Mongolia country report has been compiled by J. Goldammer, Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) on the base of the following sources published in International Forest Fire News:

Dieterich, J.H. 1991. Fire losses and fire control programs. International Forest Fire News No. 5, 4-5.

Erdenesaikhan, N., and M. Erdenetuya, Researcher. 1999. Forest and steppe fire monitoring in Mongolia using satellite remote sensing. International Forest Fire News No. 21, 71-74.

Ing, S.K. 1999. The social conditions of wildfire in Mongolia. International Forest Fire News No. 21, 75-80.

Shulman, D. 1996. Wildfires in Mongolia 1996. International Forest Fire News No. 15, 30-35.

Shulman, D. 1997. Strengthening disaster response capability in Mongolia. Project accomplishment summary. International Forest Fire News No. 16, 20-22.

Valendik, E.N., G.A. Ivanova, Z.O. Chuluunbator, and J.G. Goldammer. 1998. Fire in forest ecosystems of Mongolia. International Forest Fire News No. 19, 58-63.

Wingard, J.R., and N. Erdenesaikhan. 1998. The German – Mongolian Technical Cooperation GTZ Integrated Fire Management Project Khan Khentii Protected Area, Mongolia. International Forest Fire News No. 19, 64-66

Wingard, J.R., and W. Moody. 2000. Integrated Fire Management: The Mongolia experience. International Forest Fire News No. 23, 16-21.

Country Notes
IFFN No. 26

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