The German – Mongolian
Technical Cooperation GTZ Integrated Fire Management Project
Khan Khentii Protected Area, Mongolia
(IFFN No. 19 – September 1998,p. 64-66)
Besides first scientific studies on historic fire frequencies, the present knowledge about the historic extent of fires in Mongolia is still limited. The first attempts to manage fire did not begin until 1921 and remained limited to local town fire departments until the 1950s. Relatively accurate records exist beginning only in 1981.
It is clear, however, that Mongolia is experiencing a dangerous increase in wildfires. From 1981 to 1995, forest and steppe fires burned an average of 1.74 million hectares (ha) annually (Report by Erdensaikhan, Basic Data and Information on Forest and Steppe Fires, prepared for the GTZ Integrated Fire Management Project, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia).
In 1996 and 1997, the area affected by the fire was 10.7 and 12.4 million ha respectively an increase of more than sixfold (10,733,257 ha in 1996 (Source data: NOAA-14, 21-24 May 1996) and 12,448,182 ha in 1997 (Source data: NOAA-14, 21-24 May 1997). The area burned was derived from satellite imageries produced by the Information and Computer Center, Ministry for Nature and Environment, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia). The areas hardest hit by these increases have been the forested regions. The typical forest fire season (1981-95) swept through some 140 thousand ha (on average 8% 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% of the total land area affected by fire (Fire coverage 1996 2,363,600 ha; Fire coverage 1997 2,710,000 ha (Report by Erdensaikhan). In these two years alone more forested areas burned than were harvested over the last 65 years.
Causes and Consequences
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 Mongolias “main” fire seasons (spring and late fall), no natural fire causes exist (Natural fires occur in the summer, but this is also the rainy season and they, therefore, remain small in number and size).
Official statistics cite transportation (trucks, cars, trains, etc.) as one of the primary causes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most fires can be attributed to carelessness failure to extinguish campfires, cigarettes, sparks from tractor exhaust, use of tracer bullets, etc. New economic activities and a breakdown in control mechanisms are fuelling the number and severity. One of these activities is the collection of elk antlers for sale to European and Chinese markets. The collection starts in the bitter cold of February where the fire is simply a survival tool.
The most obvious consequence of frequent and intense fires is the loss of forested land (Approximately 8.1 percent of Mongolia is forested (17.5 million ha) the vast majority of which is inaccessible). The current fire pattern is affecting 14% 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.
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 the problem of fire management. As a first step, the parliament passed a law designed to organize and improve fire fighting efforts at all levels.
Fig.1. Forest and steppe fire map of Mongolia, spring 1996
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, will provide 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 will be the establishment of a fire management plan compatible both with the protected area goals and the responsibilities of the local communities. Fire Management Units in the local communities will receive professional training and basic hand tools suitable for the regional conditions. Information and Training Centers will provide the necessary infrastructure for fire prevention activities, management information, training exercises, dispatch, and field organization.
The IFM project supports Mongolia by strengthening local capacities to effectively address the issues of fire prevention, pre-suppression, and suppression. It will do this by helping to organize the cooperation between protected area, local and national administrations responsible for fire management; by establishing the necessary infrastructure, providing training both in-country and abroad; and, by including all stakeholders in the planning and implementation of fire management activities.
Fig.2. Forest workers combatting a surface forest fire in Mongolia, spring 1996.
The IFM project in Mongolia is in its infancy. It is, therefore, too early for a prognosis. But the team feels positive about the tremendous response already experienced at all levels. Because of this understanding and support, a number of activities have been possible, i.e., the establishment of fire management units in selected local areas (including initial training); development of a draft fire management plan for the protected area administration; and, the implementation of a pilot fire prevention program. We will be placing a tremendous amount of energy into the prevention aspects of the program.
From: James R. Wingard
Project Coordinator and N. Erdenesaikhan
Coordinator of International Projects Address:
Integrated Fire Management Project (GTZ)
Hydrometeorology Building, II Floor, #217
Government Building No. 3
Baga Toiruu – 44
Ulaanbaatar – 11