Mongolia: Wildfires in Mongolia 1996 (IFFN No. 15 – September 1996)

Wildfires in Mongolia 1996

(IFFN No. 15 – September 1996, p. 30-35)


During the months of March and April, 1996, Mongolia began to experience wildland fire events significantly exceeding normal activity levels for this period of time. The fire activity intensified in late April and continued unabated through the month of May, burning extensive areas of forest and grazing land. In mid May, a request for assistance was received at the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Ray Dionne, Disaster Operations Officer from OFDA, and Deanne Shulman, Fire Management Specialist from the United States Forest Service, were dispatched to Mongolia to assess the fire situation, and identify critical needs and problems impacting the effectiveness of the Mongolian response to this emergency situation. During the period 21 May to 5 June, 1996, they consulted with Mongolian government officials responsible for the management of the fire disaster, conducted aerial reconnaissance of heavily impacted fire areas, participated in fire logistic support missions, interviewed firefighters, and met with the American Ambassador, U.S. Agency for International Development personnel, and the International Donor Community.

The Mongolia Wildland Fire Environment

Mongolia has a land area of 1,566,371.52 square kilometers, a land area slightly larger than Alaska. The average altitude of the country is about 1,600 m a.s.l., making it one of the highest countries of the world.

The majority of forested land is located in the northern half of the country and covers approximately 10% of the total land base. Fires occur primarily within three vegetative zones: the taiga forest zone, the mountain forest steppe zone, and the steppe zone. The Mongolian taiga zone, occurring only in the northernmost areas of the country, is the southern edge of the vast Siberian taiga forest, the largest contiguous forest system on earth. These boreal coniferous forests are composed primarily of Siberian Larch (Larix sibirica, 70%), and Siberian Pine (Pinus sibirica, higher elevations). Mosses and lichens provide abundant ground fuels. The mountain forest steppe zone covers 25% of Mongolia and is comprised of both steppe (grassland) vegetation found on the drier slope aspects and mixed coniferous hardwood forest of pine, larch, and birch (Betula platyphylla) with a grass understorey on the cooler, moist northern slopes. The topography is characterized by hilly, mountainous terrain separated by wide river valleys. The mountain steppe zone occurs in a belt across the northern portion of the country. The extensive grasslands of the steppe zone covers nearly the entire far eastern part of Mongolia and extends westward in a belt through the central portion of the country. The topography of the steppe zone ranges from gently rolling to flat terrain. In a typical year, the majority of fires occur in the grasslands or grass understory of the steppe and mountain steppe zones.

Weather patterns create two distinct fire seasons in Mongolia. Spring weather is dominated by strong, dry winds. These spring winds can become very fierce and it is not uncommon for airplane traffic bound for Ulaanbaatar to be diverted to other cities due to wind during the spring. These winds are characteristic from March through June and can create intense fire potential in the dry, dead grass from the previous fall. July and August are generally rainy and produce new grass growth. During September and October, the new grass dries and again becomes available fuel for wildfire. Winters tend to be bitterly cold and dry.

Table 1 shows the number of forested acres burned each year from 1978 to 1994 (1995 Natsagdoogiin and Lamjabiin, Information On Group Training Course in Reforestation Promotion Leader “Forestry, Forest Industries, Unpublished Report).

 Tab.1. Forested area burned annually in Mongolia

The Situation in Spring 1996

Fire Conditions: An unusually dry winter (1995/96) resulted in significantly lower than average fuel moistures in the grasslands and forests of Mongolia. The strong, spring, northwest winds quickly spread any fire ignition through the tinder-dry and readily available fuels. The primary ignition source of these forests are the local inhabitants, through careless use of fire or discarded cigarettes. Much of the adult population in Mongolia smoke cigarettes. During spring, many people derive extra income by collecting deer antlers in the forest and selling them. Careless smoking while involved in this activity can result in ignitions in forested areas.

Fire Damage: Information gathered from briefings in Ulaanbaatar with Deputy Prime Minister Purevdorj, Chairman of the State Emergency Commission and General Damdinsuren, Deputy Chairman of the State Emergency Commission and Chief of Civil Defense Committee of Mongolia indicated the following as of 30 May 1996:

  • There were a total of 352 fires in the country, of which 22 had been extinguished, 94 were contained, and 36 remained uncontrolled.
  • A total of 3.5 million hectares of forested land and 5.9 million hectares of grassland was burned. Most of the fire activity was in the northern thirteen provinces. One fire in the taiga zone of the northern Huvsgol region had a 128.7 kilometer front in the Mongolia portion and extended across the border into Russia.
  • There had been 23 fatalities, including six persons killed while involved in fire suppression activities. Sixty people had been treated for serious burn injuries.
  • 168 gers (Mongolian traditional dwellings) were destroyed leaving 750 people homeless.
  • 7,800 animals died in the fires, and many fences, range improvements, and water developments destroyed.
  • Over 2000 telephone poles were burned, severing some communication links to provincial areas.

Personal observations from aerial reconnaissance and interviews with field personnel conducted on 25, 26 and 29 May in the Tov and Selenge province indicated immense areas burned in both forest and grasslands with intense, stand-replacing crown fires in approximately 10% of the burned forested areas. Many of the fires were in remote, high elevation locations with limited accessibility. Smoke covering the region limited full utilization of the few aircraft available. The extent of pasture land burned will have immediate adverse impacts on the available grazing land of nomadic herdsmen. Discussions with various officials indicate that a fire season of this magnitude and devastation has never occurred within their career span, although Chief of Civil Defense General Damdinsuren stated that 30 or 40 years ago there was a fire season of a similar catastrophic proportion. Old fire scars and mosaic regeneration patterns observed from the air indicate a history of stand-replacement fires in these forested ecosystems.

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Fig.1. Daily updates of fire activities were provided by the National Remote Sensing Center. The photograph shows the fire status map of 27 May 1996 (Photo: D.Shulman)

The Government of Mongolia Response

Emergency Response Organisation: The State Emergency Commission is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and has overall responsibility for dealing with the fire emergency situation. This commission consists of representatives from all the ministries. The Chief of the Civil Defense Committee is the Deputy Chair of the State Emergency Commission. The mission of the Civil Defense Committee is to protect human lives and properties from natural disasters. In a wildfire emergency situation, the Civil Defense Committee is responsible for all operational aspects of fire suppression efforts. The provincial branches of the Civil Defense Committee do not have full-time employee staff. Civil Defense representatives are in a reservist status and are activated in a civil defense capacity only in the event of an emergency incident. The Civil Defense organization includes approximately 200 smokejumpers based in seven northern provinces. It also includes approximately 100 specialized rescue personnel who are trained firefighters.

In response to the fire situation, the State Emergency Commission declared a “state of emergency”. Special coordination groups were established in local areas impacted by the fire situation to direct suppression efforts and provide humanitarian relief as needed. The military and police forces were mobilized to fight the fires as were thousands of local people. Border troops near Russia were also mobilized. All available resources were mobilized in the fire suppression effort, which on a daily basis ranged from 3,000 to 10,000 firefighting personnel and from 1,000 to 3,000 vehicles. Local individuals were conscripted to fight fire and were organized in crews under the leadership of military personnel or other officials.

Prioritization Criteria for Resource Commitments: Priority fires for the limited suppression resources were determined based on the fire’s proximity to population centers and threat to National Parks and Strictly Protected Areas. Due to the limited resources available and the number and magnitude of active fires, it was determined that some remote fires would have no suppression activity.

Intelligence Gathering: The Ministry of Nature and Environment maintains a very modern Information and Computer Centre that compiles environmental data. This includes meteorological, water quality and pollution data. NOAA computerized satellite imagery is used for meteorological purposes and environmental monitoring. During the wildfire emergency, fires were mapped daily using computerized satellite imagery. The fires were then numbered and listed by province and county with the latitude and longitude indicated for each. The map and list were sent daily to the Civil Defense Commission and the Ministry of Nature and Environment. Another service that the computer centre provided was meteorological data for the Mongolian Hydrometeorological Service, Weather Modification Centre “Khuryn Shim”. Other fire situation intelligence data were gathered through information from the field. Generally, this information was two days old by the time it was received in Ulaanbaatar. There was no radio communication from the fires to the local command centres. Information from the fires was carried by people on horseback or vehicles to local command centres and then telephoned to Ulaanbaatar.

Aircraft and Equipment: Aircraft committed to the firefighting effort included four military MI-8 helicopters utilized for logistic support and firefighter transport only. These helicopters were not equipped for tactical uses such as bucket drops or rappelling. An AN-26 airplane was used to “cloud seed” in an effort to produce rainfall. AN-2 aircraft were used by smokejumpers and military paratroopers to parachute to remote fires. There are no airtankers in the country.

A country-wide inventory list provided by the Civil Defense Committee dated 28 May 1996 indicates the following firefighting tools and equipment:

Tab.2. Inventory list of firefighting tools and equipment available in Mongolia during the 1996 wildfire episode

Fire fighting equipment observed include homemade “swatters” (pieces of tire rubber, linoleum, perforated metal, or felt attached to the end of a wood handle), five gallon backpack pumps (Russian made), two and a half gallon pressurized agricultural type water sprayers (Russian made), small steel rake-like brooms, air blowers (donated by the People’s Republic of China), and kerosene burn equipment. Wet clothes and tree boughs were the primary tools used to beat out the edges of the fire.

No safety equipment or fire resistant clothing was observed (with the exception of one smokejumper wearing a yellow Nomex shirt that was given to the smokejumper unit in 1990 when a UN-sponsored United States team installed a parachute maneuvering simulator for the smokejumpers in Ulaanbaatar, USDA Report 9151-2803-MTDC).

Strategy and Tactics: The non-professional firefighters (military, police, and locals) used direct flanking attacks by beating out the edges of the fire perimeter. This method can be effective in light wind conditions and grassy, light fuels. It is considerably less effective in the heavier ground fuel conditions of the taiga forests in the north, or windy conditions. The smokejumpers and trained firefighters were utilizing indirect backfire and burn out techniques where appropriate to control the fire.

Cloud seeding to enhance precipitation was used to suppress fires where weather conditions met required parameters. The Weather Modification Centre had cloud seeded twenty times during the spring to assist in fire suppression. Meteorologists at the Ministry for Nature and Environment Information and Computer Centre analyzed satellite imagery to determine which clouds may be favorable for cloud seeding. This information is sent to the Weather Modification Centre of the Hydrometeorology Service. Silver iodide “bullets” are fired from either an AN-26 airplane or the ground into the selected clouds to form a nucleus for raindrop formation.

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Fig.2. Smiling young fire-fighting supporters demonstrate home-made fire swatters. Photo: D.Shulman.

Logistics: A communication schematic provided by the Civil Defense Commission shows short-wave radios located at seven smokejump bases in the northern provinces. Civil Defense communications between Ulaanbaatar headquarters and the province capitals is done by telephone. Communications directly to or from fire locations are carried out by people on horseback or vehicles. The smokejumper units have “line of sight” radios (Russian made) with a maximum 6 mile range depending on terrain, with which they can communicate with each other and aircraft directly overhead.

There were three MI-8 helicopters utilized for logistic missions. Equipment and supplies were transported by vehicle or animal to the fire locations. Crates of canned meat and tools were observed being transported on helicopter logistic missions, but local firefighters complained of inadequate food supplies, sleeping bags, and tents.

Identified Problems

Economic Constraints: The fragile market economy and limited emergency government funds available to support the fire fighting effort significantly impacted the fire suppression operation. Smokejumper fire detection patrol flights, normally scheduled based on a fire danger rating, were delayed this year due to funding shortages for aircraft fuel. Fires that could have been detected early and suppressed while small were not detected until they became large. Smokejumper units were understaffed due to low pay and hazardous duties. The normal contingent is 300 smokejumpers. This year, however, Civil Defense could only attract 200 smokejumpers. In the transition economy, all purchases must be made in cash. Cash to pay for aircraft fuel was a continuing problem. Food and local transportation to fires was coordinated and organised at local command centres, but lack of funds to buy fuel and purchase food locally caused considerable supply and distribution problems. Local firefighters continued to receive salaries from their regular employers. Those firefighters recruited from the ranks of subsistence herders were provided food while fighting fires.

Communications: The Civil Defense Committee lacks basic communication equipment to effectively manage an emergency incident of any kind. This lack impedes the flow of adequate, accurate, and timely information between field personnel and individuals responsible for resource allocation, strategic planning, and logistic support decisions. In a rapidly changing, geographically dispersed emergency incident such as a widespread wildfire, up-to-date information is crucial for decision makers.

Disaster Management: An emergency situation of this magnitude requires an incident management structure that incorporates specialists and workers from all spheres of the government and local populations. There was no clear emergency management structure to develop an overall strategic plan, implement the plan, and provide logistic support and financial expertise to support the operation. Lack of a strategic plan and logistics problems were resulting in inefficient use of firefighting resources. Information relating to specific daily costs of supporting the fire suppression effort was difficult to obtain, frustrating members of the international donor community requiring a cost analysis to justify recommendations for cash donations.

Additional Information

A chronological narrative of specific daily activities during this assessment is documented in the Trip Report on file at the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. The full text of the Mongolia Wildfire Assessment Technical Report is also on file at OFDA.

From: Ms. Deanne Shulman
Fire Management Specialist
Sequoia National Forest
Cannell Meadow Ranger District
United States Forest Service
P.O. Box 3
USA – Kernville, CA 93238

Fax: ++1-619-376-3795
Tel:  ++1-619-376-3781

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