Mongolia: Integrated Fire Management (IFFN No. 23)

Integrated Fire Management: The Mongolia Experience

(IFFN No. 23 – December 2000, p. 16-21)


After a grueling 14 hour drive across seemingly endless expanses of rolling steppe, we arrive at our destination – the outskirts of a small town in northern Mongolia. The temperature is -20°C with stinging winds blowing out of the Northwest at 30 knots. Our small team of eight people is greeted by an even smaller contingency of firefighters – four men on horseback equipped with wet rags and blankets as their only tools. It is early spring 1998, the beginning of the fire season and we have just arrived at the scene of the first fire in the region. It is also the starting point for the German-funded Integrated Fire Management Project. The goal is to develop a fire management concept for one of Mongolia’s largest protected areas and its surrounding communities.

The scene we witnessed that spring morning is common, but the fire is earlier than normal. Following a general trend in Asia, fire seasons in Mongolia are starting earlier, lasting longer, and are more intense. Recent seasons have highlighted a drastic increase in wildfires. Available statistics indicate that historically an average fire season affected 1.74 million hectares of forest and steppe annually. From 1996 to 1999, more than 30 million ha have gone up in smoke – in four short years, an area larger than Holland or about half the size of France. Some of the hardest-hit areas have been the taiga forest regions in the north. In the last four years, more forested areas burned than were harvested in Mongolia over the last 65 years. The brief growing season and low growth capacity of the trees mean that these forests may take 200 years or more to regenerate.


Mongolia has two fire seasons – a spring fire season (February to early June) where all fires are human-caused, and a short, less intense fall season (September to late October) again entirely human-caused. At least 90% of all fires occur during the spring. Lightning strikes during the summer season (when most precipitation falls) can cause fire, but are rare and result in minimal loss. Major fires occur in the steppe zones, the mountain forest-steppe transition zones, and the primary forested area-the taiga. In the mountain forest and steppes, grass dominates the south slopes while Siberian larch (Larix sibirica), Siberian and Scotch pine (Pinus sibirica and Pinus sylvestris), and White birch (Betula rotundifolia) dominate the north and eastern slopes. Fanned by strong spring winds, fires spread quickly in the steppe. Devastating stand replacement fires are common in both the mountain forest-steppe and taiga forests.

Until recently, a branch of the military known as the Civil Defense 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 fire fighting system has collapsed.

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Fig. 1. Number of Fire Occurences and Size of AffectedSteppe and Forested Area by Year (1963 – !997).

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 were established to provide early detection and rapid initial attack on fires. The program was a Soviet style aerial detection / airborne firefighting program staffed with 200 to 300 smokejumper / helicopter rappellers and 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% of the suppression workload. In the early 1990’s, when the communist government and Soviet financial support abruptly disappeared, the Mongolian aerial program took a nosedive. 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

The 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) collection starts in the bitter cold of February where the fire is simply a survival tool; (2) sparks fly from vehicle exhaust pipes driven into remote forests, and (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 on the market place.

Innovative Solutions – an Integrated Approach

Assessment of the devastating 1996 and 1997 fire seasons highlighted the need for decentralizing fire management including the development of locally organized handcrews and implementation of an aggressive grassroots fire prevention / fire fighting program. 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. The priority target areas selected were the buffer zone Soums (districts) surrounding the south-end of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area, an area hard hit by the 1996-1997 firestorms.

Defining Integrated Fire Management

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.

Fire management is most effectively broken down into three discrete components: (1) prevention, (2) pre-suppression, and (3) suppression.

  1. Prevention includes all measures that help prevent the outbreak of fires or help the reduction of the fire severity and spread. A comprehensive fire prevention program uses all three elements of education – engineering and enforcement to reduce risk, hazards, and exposures. Education and enforcement programs target risk while engineering targets hazards and exposures.
  2. Pre-suppression is typically defined as the actions and activities needed to ensure suppression organizations are fully prepared for any required wildfire suppression measures. The central focus of pre-suppression work is management planning and GIS-based mapping.
  3. Suppression refers to the activities and actions involved in controlling and extinguishing unwanted wildland fires, including the establishment, training, and equipping of fire management units.

 The sustainability of this kind of fire management program depends on four factors:

  • Development of methods that focus on the practical capacity of local communities and seek to integrate component activities for fire prevention, pre-suppression, and suppression.
  • Development of mechanisms for inter-institutional cooperation between and among all involved and/or affected organizations and individuals
  • Laying the groundwork for effective coordination prior to and during fire events
  • Establishing a framework for appropriate oversight at the national level to integrate the above-mentioned components (common goals and activities) as well as to standardize administrative procedures, training programs, strategies, tactics, material, and equipment

Local Community Capacity Building

To date, the focus of the IFM Project has been capacity building at the local community level. Using participatory methodologies such as PRA (participatory rural appraisal), participants identified specific activities for prevention, pre-suppression, and suppression components.

Fire Prevention

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 Center (ITC) “extension” officers, educators, protected area rangers, key community persons. Together with them a number of educational materials have been developed and introduced including: (1) a fire prevention curriculum for school children; (2) a fire prevention video; (3) a ranger’s handbook to be used as an outreach tool in remote areas; (4) a coloring book for small children; and (5) 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. Planning, however, is hampered by history. The planning process was a form of strict control. All plans were in essence a promise to perform. Failure to fulfill the objectives could be dealt with harshly. Managers are naturally tentative when it comes to spelling out activities and tend to convert planning documents to long-winded descriptions of the problem or resource. To overcome these difficulties, the project has worked to redefine the Fire Management Plan as a “Management Guideline” allowing managers to treat the document with the necessary flexibility.

To support pre-suppression activities, the IFM Project has engaged in a comprehensive fire management mapping effort. In an initial stage, NOAA-14 satellite imagery has been compiled to show annual fire coverages with overlays on forest types. In a second phase, the project helped to design fire risk, hazard and danger maps at a scale of 1:100,000 for the entire region. Further development of these maps is in progress.


Suppression goals include (1) the establishment of fire management crews, (2) provision of equipment and (3) the development of a locally run “Fire Training Program” customized for Mongolian conditions-its fuels, fire behavior, 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 (FMUs – or suppression crews) for their respective Soums. The 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 the 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, fire rake (Council type), backpack pump, crosscut saw, a chainsaw and hardhats. Each crew has been equipped with personal portable radios, a vehicle mobile radio, and mobile repeaters for communications with the dispatch center. Stationary repeaters are being installed to link the Soum dispatch centers with the national coordination center in Ulaanbaatar.

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) and Firefighter Training (S-130) and basic Incident Command System concepts. Approximately one-half of the course was conducted in the field, including “live burns” for mop-up and a final day live-fire exercise. Crews were instructed in the bump-up progressive crew method of fireline construction. A fire instructor’s training course for Mongolian instructors followed this. 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.

Inter-Institutional Cooperation

Effective resource management requires inter-institutional cooperation in part due to overlapping responsibilities, but also because of the need to share institution or agency resources. This is even truer with fire because, (1) fires can occur anywhere the right conditions exist and (2) unlike some resources (such as forests), fire moves – and its devastating path affects everyone as it inflicts damage to soil, water, wildlife, vegetation, air quality, and human beings.

Mongolia has recognized the need for a pluralistic approach to fire management in legislation, however mechanisms for inter-institutional cooperation have not yet been clearly defined. Most actors, particularly in the rural locations where the project is active, remain cut off from regional and national level resources. The IFM Project is assisting with the first moves in the arena by helping to establish cooperative agreements between the protected area administration and local governments for the joint management of the established fire management units. These agreements however are relatively simple in form and function and do not encompass regional or national level agencies.

Effective Coordination

Fire events are life-threatening and without proper coordination in the field can be unnecessarily dangerous. It is, therefore, imperative that coordination be spelled out as part of normal planning activities. Several countries achieve this through the Incident Command System. It is essentially a military concept of the organization, adapted for disaster management – fire, floods, earthquakes, etc. The organization expands or contracts depending on incident size, needs, or complexity. If all the components are in place and everyone is playing the game, the incident is handled efficiently. It is designed to be an inter-agency or single agency / small fire or major widespread firestorm. All participating agencies are trained to work together, often on the same team, sharing the resources needed to get the job done. Essential ICS components include:

  • common terminology (equipment, strategy/tactics, standards etc )
  • modular organization with five functions – Command, Plans, Logistics, Finance/ Administration and Operations (the firefighters)
  • Integrated communications
  • Unified command if multi-jurisdictional
  • Consolidated Action Plan for each work shift
  • A designated “span of control” (3 -7 per supervisor)
  • Designated incident facilities
  • Properly trained and equipped disaster specialists (firefighters)
  • Resource management (continual accountability for all resources)

 National Oversight

In a decentralized fire management environment, the need to maintain oversight remains. This does not mean direct involvement in implementation, but rather the development of policies, norms, guidelines, and procedures that are conducive to or supportive of the initiatives taking place at the regional and sub-regional levels. At a minimum, it means (1) creating an open forum for discussion (open-door policy-making) inclusive of all stakeholders, (2) compiling, analyzing, and distributing information that supports informed decision-making, (3) standardizing procedures and practices, and (4) continuous monitoring, evaluation, and improvement of existing policies. Without this oversight, fire management initiatives at the community level risk becoming an island solution with little chance of replication in other areas.

Mongolia has recently taken significant steps in this direction through the establishment of a Fire Management Agency. Pursuant to newly enacted legislation, the Mongolian Civil Defense and State Police will transfer their responsibilities to the new agency including associated resources (personnel, budget, and equipment).


After a short two years of project life, it is still too early to claim the successful development of a comprehensive model for integrated fire management.

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) provide technical assistance and specialized training; (4) to facilitate cooperation/coordination between agencies; (5) to evaluate training and determine the need for additional training; and 6) to determine fire management program needs.

  • National Level Training Center – Mongolia has a major and complex fire problem. Only a handful of fighters has received basic fire training. To effectively fight complex and large fires requires 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 CooperationA challenge remains 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 the 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 reduces 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.

Contact address

James R. Wingard
Principal Advisor, GTZ Integrated Fire Management Project

Tel/Fax: ++976-1-320886

William Moody
North Cascades Fire Service
Twisp, Washington

Tel/Fax: ++1 509-997-5971


| IFFN No. 23 | Specials | Country Notes |

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