Poland: Current Research on Forest Fire Management in Poland (IFFN No. 10 – January 1994)

POLAND: Fire Situation in Poland

(IFFN No. 27 – July 2002, p. 38-64)

Introduction – Terminology and Classification

According to Poland’s legal system, the forest is defined as either category of ground:

1)compact ground pieces of area at least 0.1 ha, covered with forest vegetation (forest plantations) – trees and shrubs and forest floor vegetation, or at a transitional stage without vegetation:

a)       intended for forestry production, or

b)       nature reserve or part of a National Park, or

c)       included in the monuments register;

2)connected with forestry, occupied by buildings or other structures, water melioration facilities, forest roads and lines, ground beneath power lines, forest nurseries, timber storage places, or grounds used as forest parking grounds and tourism facilities.

Explanation to the statistical data

Several fire categories are identified in statistical data collection systems in Poland. Depending on actual type of vegetation cover different wildfire (this term comes from the FAO classification system) categories are identified. Fire-related data are collected by different institutions, depending on the jurisdiction (responsible agency or ministry, ownership, etc.). As a consequence, the data collected have differentiated structure.

The most precise and complete statistical data concerning forest fires (definition of forest according to the FAO nomenclature: fires on high forest lands) in public (state-owned) lands under the administration of the State Forests (SF) as collected each year by the General Directorate of State Forests (GDSF). The collected data include spatial distribution (size of area burned, location down to the Forest District level), temporal information (time of occurrence, age of burnt stands), causes, and value of final losses. Moreover, data are available on material means and financial resources spent on fire protection. In the periodic forest fire reports (until 1999) from Poland to the statistical data collection for ECE/FAO only forest areas under the administration of State Forests (78.4% of total country’s forest) have been included.

A less detailed statistical data basis covering all forest fires in Poland (including those in non-state owned forest, i.e. private forests, national parks, communal forest and other) has been completed by the National Headquarters of State Fire Service (NH-SFS). This database contains the information of total burnt area, the number of new fires by the time of occurrence (day, month), location (Province), its cause and category of size. Additionally, it contains information on the number of fires in town forests and parks (these two are not included in the category: forest area), without specifying the size of burnt area. NH-SFS has also been collecting the data on number and size of crop fires, meadows and stubbles and waste land (according to the FAO nomenclature: other land).

Forest Area and Ownership

The total area of Polish forests is 8.865 million ha. The forest cover index is 28.35%. Poland belongs to the group of countries with characteristically diverse ownership structure dominated by public forest, similar to Greece and Ireland (Fig.1). The proportion of privately owned forest is geographically differentiated: from about 40% in the Małpolskie Province (south-eastern part of the country) and Mazowieckie Province (central part of Poland) down some 1-2% in Lubuskie, Zachodniopomorskie and Dolnośląskie Province (along the western border of the country). As a result of the recent public administration reform the structure of supervision over private and municipal forest was altered. Before the reform the State Forests and National Park authorities supervised as much as 98.7% of the area. Beginning with the year 2000 the share of local authorities (starostwa) supervision increased to the present level of 18%. Considering the average size of 1.3 ha of privately owned forest fire protection is difficult. This situation and the lacking activity of the forest owners make it almost impossible to carry effective forest management in these forests. State Forests occupy 28,000 forest complexes out of which 6,000 are smaller than 5 ha.

Forest Fire Danger, Hazard and Risk

About 83% of all forest resources of Poland are potentially threatened by fire (the respective average figure for the whole of Europe is 65%). Thus, with an area of 7.4 million ha at risk the danger is extremely high. The actual scale of the problem is a result of the prevailing abiotic, biotic and anthropogenic pressure over the area of the whole country. The cumulative effects of several unfavorable factors makes the forest less vital, thus increasing its vulnerability to fire initiation and facilitating its spread.

Abiotic hazards

The role of abiotic hazards is mainly the result of the geographic situation of Poland: the area of both large climate systems overlap – the maritime and the continental climate influences. The weather anomalies frequently occur in this zone: extreme air temperatures, heavy precipitation events and stormy winds. The health conditions of forests have been influenced negatively by the factors decisive for the water supply status: precipitation deficit, or repeatedly occurring long-lasting droughts in the middle of growing season, leading to the lowering of the groundwater table. As a consequence, large regions of the country are suffering low and insufficient humidity, leading to, among others, the increasing process of steppe formation. The majority of Polish forest occupies poor sandy soils with little water-holding capacity: most of the precipitation waters are gravitationally moved off the reach of tree roots. Particularly disadvantageous conditions prevail in afforested stands growing in an area of 1.5 million ha on the poorest once abandoned agricultural lands. Their area has been on the continuous increase and is expected to grow also in the future years, leading thus to an even more serious hazard. According to the countrywide program to increase Poland’s forest cover index (see above) an area of 0.7 million ha will be afforested until the year 2020, and in subsequent years a total of 1.5 million ha of least productive agricultural sites. Several attributes of such forests: lacking many biocenotic elements of the fully developed forest ecosystem, the homogenous even-aged plantations over great areas, and their species composition – all these cause an extremely high susceptibility of such forest both to pests and fire. The western wind direction prevailing in Poland, loaded with air pollution from the industrialized countries of West and Central Europe, is also contributing to the degradation of forest health in Poland.

Biotic hazards

Considering the biotic hazard in Poland’s forests, the main threatening factor is the massive outbreaks (gradations) of insect pests (and particularly foliophagous insects in coniferous stands, and secondary pests of pine and spruce) as well as infectious diseases which has obviously a negative impact on forest vitality. However, concerning forest fire hazard the structure of site and stand conditions in Polish forests are most important.

Species composition of forest

A characteristic feature of Polish forest stand composition is the absolute dominance of conifers (76.5% of the forested area) that are especially endangered by fire. Stands dominated by Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and to a smaller share larch (Larix europaea) contribute to 68.2% of the Polish forest area. Except of pine, the most endangered by fire are the following woody species: Norway spruce (Picea abies), fir (Abies alba), and Weymouth pine (Pinus strobus). Considering the broadleaves it is beech (Fagus sylvatica), oak (Quercus spp.), locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), birch (Betula spp.) and alder (Alnus spp.) that are also susceptible. Coniferous forests make up a total of 66.6% forest area, broadleaf forest contributes in 15.4%, and mixed forest occupies 18.0%. The disadvantageous stand species composition is even more difficult because of the fact that part of coniferous stands grow on inadequate (too rich) sites. Scots pine continues to be the main species in afforestation sites, mainly because of the poor quality of the afforestation sites; its proportion of 28.5%, however, is much lower as compared with pine’s actual role in the State Forests (70.1%).

Age structure of forest stands

In Poland stands aged 21-60 years are dominating, occupying 46.3% of the total forest area. The average age of State Forests stands was 57 years in 2000, while in privately owned forest the respective figure was 40 years. Forest stands up to the age of 40 years make up 41.8% of the total forest area, and stands not older than 60 years contribute to 64.7% of the total forest area. Nearly 65% of all forest fires are observed in stands not older than 60 years.

Forest sites

The forest in Poland is occupying predominantly the area of the relatively poorest soils and are characterized by a large portion of coniferous forest sites (60%) where often even-aged Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) monocultures occur. Such a situation results in large areas and volumes of highly flammable materials and favours the establishment of vegetation-free and “dead” upper soil layers.

Out of the anthropogenic factors important for the actual fire danger dynamics the following are especially crucial under the condition of Polish forest and will be briefly presented below.

Industrial pollution

Among those factors decisive for the health condition of forest has been the industrial pollution. It is a damaging factor, causing forest injury and decline and making forest more vulnerable also to fire occurrence. The impact of industrial pollution as observed in years 1990-1994 had resulted in different degree of damages in as much as 80% of all forest stands. Only beginning with the year 1995, the process has been clearly decreased and at present the portion of damaged forest area is 60%. The severity of damage is spatially heterogeneous. The most heavily injured have been forest stands in the Sudetes (south-western Poland), some of them have completely disappeared. The industrial emission impact leads to the establishment of gaps in the stands, abundant growth of weeds (grasses and heather), growing intensity of trees dying off and as a result (large volumes of flammable standing dead trees) growing has been the fire hazard.

Impact of tourism

The growing recreational-oriented use of forest followed by its enhanced availability has also contributed to an increased human-made risk. One characteristic phenomenon in Poland has been the popularity of gathering mushrooms and forest floor fruits. Regardless of the political system, it always was a common tradition. In the period of a few last years however, it has become an important financial source especially in the regions of high unemployment. On the other hand, the rapid growth of motorization and number of vehicles as observed in the last decade have also contributed to the increased mobility of our society and more frequent visits to the forests.

Other factors

The complex impact of the above listed biotic and abiotic stressing factors, as well as the impact of humans, is expressed by the health condition of the forest. The latter is often expressed in terms of defoliation degree of trees. Despite some slight improvement, Poland still belongs to the countries characterized by a high average degree of damages and the poor (even if only locally observed) forest conditions that influence fire hazard. Another important factor is the poor sanitary condition of the forest, a consequence of delayed tending measures, and especially so in the private forest. These and other facts result in an increased level of risk of more frequent and more dangerous fire occurrence in private forest. Besides, private forest often increases the risk of fire in adjacent state forests. At present, no legal restrictions are binding that would enforce the forest owner to undertake prevention measures against forest fire, for forests or forest complexes below 100 ha of area. In fact, however, even the larger privately owned forest complexes – despite the formal obligation to preventive fire protection action – are not prepared for a fire case. The regulation cannot be executed under the present day hard economic conditions. Such obligations, e.g., efficient patrols and fire detection arrangements, maintenance of access roads to water sources, provision and maintenance of equipment bases for fire control, remain thus only a dead legal note. Thus, in the majority of cases, private forests are not at all prepared for fire protection. The fact that forest complexes are owned by many small owners aggravates the situation. The small average area of a forest parcels does not allow for treating the forest as the only or important income source. Not surprisingly, the owners themselves are not interested in paying for their properties protection and proper tending but only in maximizing profit from the harvested wood. No detailed management plans are being prepared for the forests not belonging to the state. The stands are very often in a very poor condition because of the non-accomplished tending measures, which results in their increased susceptibility to fire and difficulties in fire protection. Moreover, such stands are often dangerous for the adjacent state forests. This has forced the State Forest Service to take over fire protection in private forests, leading to increased and still growing costs. This includes also the construction of water reservoirs for fire suppression in the vicinity of private forests, construction of access roads, observation and patrolling of forests, fire suppression, use of airplanes etc. If these measures were not undertaken the fire danger level of State Forests and the risk of large fires involving high losses would increase considerably.

Forest fire danger classification

Polish forests are being classified by Fire Danger Classes. The categorization system determines the potential fire hazard of a given area and allows for diversification of long-term preventive measures applied as well as for organizational-technical preparation for fire suppression. This classification is made for a single Forest District (FD), a National Park (NP), or for larger areas such as forest complexes or Regional Directorates of State Forests. The classification parameters are:

  • fire frequency (within the five last years at least);
  • site type and age structure of forest stands;
  • climatic conditions as characterized by the Sielaninov hydrothermic index;
  • geographic context (presence of town agglomerations and industrial centers and the resulting intensity of tourism); and
  • industrial pollution (SO2 and NOx pollution index).

In each forest area the fire hazard classification is reassessed in 10-year intervals either in forest management plans (Forest Districts) or in forest protection plans (National Parks). Forest not owned by the State so far do not undergo this regular classification. The assessment results of fire danger of Forest District and Regional Directorate of the State Forests (RDSF) are presented in Figures 2 and 3.

Variable Forest Fire Danger

During the last few years an increase of fire danger and an elevated number of fires and area burned have been observed in Poland as a consequence of more frequent occurrence of extreme fire weather conditions during the fire season. These weather conditions that were uncommon in earlier years are accompanied by rapid changes of atmospheric fronts. Moreover, regional climate warming, associated with increased occurrence of relatively warm and snowless winters have also contributed to the prolongation of the fire season. Thus, winter and autumn months are no longer considered free of fire risk. The year 1999 is an example when the maximum of fires (2106) was observed in September. Compared with the period 1990-1998 this number is equivalent to an increase of September fires of more than ten times, contributing to more than a fourth of the total number of yearly fires. In 1992, in turn, the atmospheric conditions (long-lasting drought associated with inflow of dry air masses) had favored the emergence of fire from the very beginning of the season. This situation had resulted in an unprecedented occurrence of four disastrous forest fires, each of them affecting several thousand hectares. The largest of these fires burned an area greater than the total area burnt in the most severe years of Poland’s post-war fire history (1948 and 1952).


Forecasting forest fire danger and risk

The purpose of forecasting forest fire danger is to determine the possibility of forest fire occurrence on a given day depending on fire-weather conditions (lately forecasting has been introduced allowing determining forest fire weather on the day after).

The determination of the actual degree of forest fire danger and fire risk is decisive for organizational preparedness and is obligatory on a daily basis for Forest Districts and National Parks (Tab.1). In Poland two methods of forest fire danger assessment are recognized: (a) the method of Forest Research Institute (IBL method), and (2) the method of Szczygieł of fire risk determination (Szczygiel 2000, Wiler 2000). The first mentioned method is obligatory for all administrative units of the State Forests and is carried out in 34 prognostic zones. The zonation of the forest area is delineated by the General Directorate of State Forests followed by proposal by the Department of Forest Fire Protection of Forest Research Institute (Fig.4). The zonation is made considering the forest danger classes, the spatial distribution of large closed forest areas and natural-forest areas, climatic conditions, actual site and stand conditions, frequency and magnitude of past forest fires, availability of radio-based communication systems, administrative boundaries of State Forests as well as the distribution of large town agglomerations, industrialized regions and the actual intensity of tourism. The area under the supervision of a Forest District is the basic organizational unit.

The fire danger forecast method of the Forest Research Institute (IBL)

The IBL method is based on three key factors that are critical for the possibility of a breakout of fire:

  • pine litter moisture

  • relative air humidity

  • precipitation coefficient.

Each day the actual weather parameters are measured at exactly 09:00 and 13:00 in several meteorological observation points within the delineated zones. The results are transmitted to the forecast unit of the zone. At this unit the forest litter moisture content is determined as well as the actual degree of fire danger at 09:00 and 13:00. In case of a precipitation event or in springtime (before the growth of above-ground organs of herbaceous plants – mainly grasses) corrections are made of the fire danger degree. Forest fire danger forecasting is carried out by State Forests only during the fire season (between 1 March and 30 September). The determined degree of fire danger for a given zone is delivered in accordance with the established pattern (Fig.4). At present, the maps of forest fire risk prepared on a daily basis during the fire season and are publicly available immediately on the internet at: 

Ecological importance of forest fires

Forest fires are considered a para-natural phenomenon in the managed forest and are one of the most important factors damaging the forest environment. Forest fire affects both the whole ecosystem and its particular elements: forest stand, herbaceous vegetation, fauna and soil, depending on fire intensity and duration of fire (fire residence time) (Fig.5). Fire should be considered as part of the natural environment but it is also a drastically acting factor able to produce significant and fast changes of the environment. The degree of its destructive power depends on a number of factors: stand species composition, age of trees, terrain relief, and weather conditions both prior and after fire.

One direct effect of a fire is either partial or complete destruction of plants or at least decrease in their vitality. Total destruction occurs following crown fire of younger stands. Partial destruction usually is the result of surface fires, especially in old-growth stands. Partial destruction leads to decrease of a stand’s silvicultural value and reduces the increment. During the first 2-3 years after fire often no visible decrease is observed. After a few years, an increased process of tree decline is observed. The weakened trees become infected by noxious insects and pathogenic fungi. In turn this leads to die-off. Such stands become a spreading spot for pests, threatening the healthy adjacent forests. Fire also influences plant succession. A secondary effect of forest fire is the change of abiotic components of the ecosystem (microclimate, soil). Removing a fire-damaged stand may result in turning the area into marsh (rapidly increased groundwater table) or maybe the trigger of moving poor sandy soils (moving dunes). Finally, soil erosion may be started in mountainous terrain.

Field and grassy ecosystems are also destroyed by fire. These are areas of high natural value, characteristic of high degree of biodiversity exceptional in the rest of Europe – reserves and national parks. Fires in marshy terrains, peatlands, reed areas bring danger for moose resting places, birds’ nesting area, and to protected rare plants. In 1987 some 1000 ha of such area were burnt in the Narew river valley, and in 1994 a similar area was burnt in the Biebrza National Park.

Fire-caused losses

Forest fires cause both direct losses (that connected with destroyed or damaged timber and silviculture and protection cost) equal yearly some PLN 220 million (about € 61 millions) on average but, also, indirect losses. The latter is often many times higher than the direct losses. In the long run it is six times higher than the direct losses. One hectare of forest area absorbs nearly 120 tons of carbon in the stage of the most intensive growth (that is between 10 and 50 years of age – and stands within this age compartment are most frequently subjected to fire).

The average economic losses per hectare (the mean value of burnt forest) was equal in the State Forests in year 1999 some PLN 10,494 (Euro 2,879). The cost varied, however, a lot between particular Regional Directorates of State Forests (RDSF): from merely PLN 4,934 (Euro 1354) in RDSF in Kraków up to PLN 21,863 (Euro 5,998) in Zielona Góra RDSF. These figures do not show however the magnitude of far more serious damage posed to the environment and society.

Disastrous forest fires

The catastrophic drought of 1992 resulted in lowering of the ground waters table, causing thus a negative impact on the stands condition as well as drying of other vegetation elements. A combined effect of this fact and the extremely unfavorable meteorological conditions (high temperatures accompanied by low relative air humidity and strong winds of varying direction) had contributed to an enormously fast expansion of fire – fires spread with an intensity never known before under the Polish condition. Four disastrous forest fires took place in August 1992 covering a total area of 20,165 ha. Those largest fires were:

9 August 1992 – Szprotawa Forest District (Lubuskie Province): The fire lasted two days and an area of 2260 ha was burnt.

10 August 1992 – Solec Kujawski and Gniewkowo Forest District (Kujawsko-Pomorskie Province): This fire was initiated in a Scots pine thicket and lasted for two days; its total area was 3000 ha.

10 August 1992 – Potrzebowice, Wronki, and Krucz Forest District (Wielkopolskie Province): The total burnt area was 5130 ha. The fire was initiated at about 16:00 when the atmospheric air temperature varied between 26-35°C, relative air humidity was 20-35%, and pine litter moisture was equal 5% (at 13:00 the inflammability threshold value was 27%). The extreme condition under which the fire had started resulted in its vary rapid expansion rate. On average, about 500 ha were burnt per hour.

26 August 1992 – Rudy Raciborskie, Kedzierzyn, and Rudziniec Forest District (Shskie Province): This ever largest forest fire in Poland covered an area of 9600 ha. This fire, similarly as the just mentioned one had been initiated by sparks from breaks of a train. Fires started along a train scarp in a few hundred meters distance. On the first day the fire took an area of 2200 ha, on the next day another 1500 ha and it spread to the adjacent Forest District of Kedzierzyn on the critical day of 29 August, and the next day (30 August) it reached the forest of Rudziniec FD and a total area of 8500 ha. During the next three days the envelope of fire was closed. The loss due to the fire was assessed then for PLN 785.6 million (Euro 215.5 millions). A total of 567 fire sections took part in the rescue action, 30 airplanes and helicopters, 25 tanks and bulldozers. Altogether about 11 thousand people were involved. During the action two firemen died, 159 were hurt, and as much as 1858 people were less heavily injured.

During those mentioned large area fires the flames threatened also residential areas. People were forced to leave their houses in the endangered area where not only buildings but also significant amounts of firefighting equipment were burnt. Combustion products caused high environmental risk because of the toxic fumes and they also brought danger to humans health, even in distant villages.

Statistical Database on Forest Fires

Statistical data on forest fires and other vegetation fires in post-war Poland show a clearly growing tendency, both in numbers and burnt area (Tab.2). The mean number of yearly occurring forest fires (on high forest – according to the FAO terminology) had doubled within the decade 1981-1990. During the next decade it became three times larger than that observed in the period 1951-1960 (Tab.3). The average yearly size of burnt area, after a temporary yet clear decrease, – has risen again in the period 1991-2000. The mean area of a single forest fire in State Forests has diminished by more than two times in the same period (considering the 10-year intervals) or even more than 5 times, considering the 5-year periods (Tab.3). In the period 1991-2000, the total burnt forest area was 109,146 ha and the total number of fires was 83,061. Considering the last decade, the number of fires in State Forests equaled 47,190 events and was maintained at nearly the same level as that counted for the last twenty year period (1971-1990) – 47,390. The burnt area has only diminished by 12.5% in the last decade as compared with the previous period (the respective figures: 55,868 ha versus 63,960 ha). Table 4 and Figure 6 present the detailed data. It is to conclude that the number of forest fires in Poland contributed in 6 to 16% to the total number of forest fires in the whole of Europe. The yearly burnt area made from 0.80 to 9.68% (the latter recorded in 1992, the ever hardest year for Polish forest) of Europe’s burnt forest area.

Table 4. Statistical data of fires on high forest in Poland in the period 1980-2000

An alarming tendency has been observed in the last years: the continuously growing number of forest fires in the forest owned by non-state owners, mainly in the privately owned forest. The percent portion of such cases has risen rapidly from 15% in 1991 to 57% in the year 2000. In period 1991-2000 the burnt area in the State Forests and non-state forests were nearly equal (the respective figures are: 55,868 ha versus 53,278 ha), and the average area of a single fire was in the latter more than two times larger. Distribution of a number of fires by size shows Figure 7.

Fire Causes

The absolute majority of forest fires had their cause in either direct or indirect activity of humans (Fig. 8-9). Among them on the first place should be listed those fires set as a result of carelessness of adults (40.17%). Highest concern, however, is the growing number of intentionally-set (arson) fires (44.23%). An increase of fires spreading from non-forest grounds has also been observed, the main causes being burning of stubble, meadows, near-road ditches or fallow grounds. The area of abandoned agricultural ground has significantly increased since the beginning of the transition towards the market economy. And this new situation has resulted in an enormous number of fires observed on such lands within a year: from approx. 14,000 in 1994 to 23,000 in 2000. Also the magnitude of burnt area has grown from about 30,000 ha to 54,000 ha (Tab.3). The tradition to burn meadows, despite the legal restrictions that are in place since many years, continues to be a serious problem every spring. Burning grasses are dangerous for forests and farms, often involving fatalities, including the perpetrators themselves. Smoke emissions create a serious danger for drivers by reducing visibility. In the season of meadow burning the number of forest fires rapidly grows by up to five times. In 1996 the maximum number of wildfires started from burning on non-forest lands (28% of all forest fires in State Forests). In April alone 66.5% of the forest fires affecting a 90.1% of the total area burned in 1996. A total of nine people died during the burning of meadows and wasteland, including one fireman.

Arson continues to be an important cause of forest fires. The share of purposely set fires has been growing regardless of forest ownership. In the period of transformation, arson may have been the result of the difficult economic situation of people. Earlier in most cases, the cases of intentional fire setting were connected with some mental disorders of the perpetrator. It happens that the perspective of getting even a temporary job at the burnt area is the only possible opportunity to get a job. This is especially the case of the regions with high structural unemployment.

An absolute majority of forest fires in Poland takes part in the period March-September. Depending on the year, forest fires may peak either in early spring months before the greening of vegetation (Fig.10), or during the summer drought period (July- August). For example, in the year 2000 the spring fires (April-May) made up as much as 70% of the total yearly fires. Moreover, the monthly number of fires in May 2000 (equal 5296) was even higher than that previously highest number recorded in April of 1996 (equal 5003).

Table 3. Statistical data of fires in high forest in Poland in the period 1951-2000

Table 4. Wildfire database for Poland in the period 1990-1999

*) Moreover area burned of moor and heathland at each year they are amount: 1989 – 4,039 ha; 1990 – 9,553 ha; 1992 – 31,566 ha.
**) High Forest Fires with parks and urban forests

Organization of Forest Fire Protection in Poland

The Forest Fire Protection Structure of Poland is presented in Figure 11. The functioning of forest protection in the units of State Forests and national parks are shown in Table 5.

Table 5. Scheme of the Functioning of Forest Fire Protection in the Units of State Forests and Nationals Parks

Forest Fire Research

Since 1963 the Department of Forest Fire Protection of the Forest Research Institute has been conducted a complex study in the field of forest fire. The study comprises the three main directions:

  • forest fire preventive activity

  • the fire effects on the forest environment

  • the methods and technical means used in fighting forest fires.

Among other types of research, studies have been made on forecasting methods of forest fire risk; forest areas are subjected to the classification according to actual of forest fire danger class; trees and stands after fire are monitored; the fire-connected loss is assessed. Processes of physicochemical combustion are also studied, forest flammable materials are subjected to quantitative and qualitative analyses and description. The causes and conditions under which fire may occur are studied; models are constructed of forest fire spread. Studies have been undertaken on activities limiting the fire spread (fire belts) and reducing fire hazard of forest stands. Studied have been also the methods of recultivation of burnt forest ground. The many years of experience enabled working out of a system of forest terrain observation and fire detection using industrial TV techniques and application of aerial techniques for forest fire detection and suppression. The Department is also an opinion making and advisory body for the structures that are functioning within the system of country-wide fire protection. It is a coordinator of communication and supervisor of forest fire danger forecasting. Another field of activity is training and public information. The output of research activities of the Department is disseminated and implemented in the form of written principles and instructions.

Preventive Measures

The following preventive measures are applied in the fire protection system of Poland:

  • legislative activity: creating new legal regulations connected with forest fire protection
  • public information and propaganda efforts
  • rendering forest accessible so that also the forest fire protection demands be met
  • construction and maintenance of fire breaks and fire belts
  •  implementation of silvicultural recommendations
  • training of staff involved in forest fire management.

Silvicultural recommendations

In the protection of forest against fire a number of measures are applied aimed at minimizing the potential fire danger in future. One task is to create such stands that would be in the highest possible degree biologically resistant to origin and spreading of fire. If only site conditions make it possible, coniferous monocultures are gradually converted to more fire-resistant broadleaved stands. Despite the tendency towards a growing portion of broadleaf-dominated stands in the State Forests domain (in the period 1945-2000 the index grew from the initial 13% to 22.3%) there are still possibilities to increase their share.

Another form so such silvicultural activity is the introduction of so-called “biological belts” that not only play the role of fire protection barriers but also are valuable from the biocenotic point of view: they make the forest biodiversity higher increasing thus its natural resistance. Broad-leaved tree and shrub species are selected so that they fit the site richness, prevent the occurrence of heathers and grassy vegetation. They also prevent the emergence of plantlets litter cover which is similarly as those mentioned above fire-prone. All these measures are typically long-term activities due to, among other reasons, their high cost. It is recommended that, while regenerating forest stands, possibly large numbers of accompanying and auxiliary (biocenotic) species be used. While planting forest on a burnt area it is recommended to divide the area into smaller compartments by introducing border belts consisting of several rows of broadleaf species.

Organizational-Technical Preparation of Forest Areas for Fire Event

Forested areas have to be prepared for an event of fire, both in the organizational and technical-operational respects. The starting point for the proper preparation is determining the actual class of forest fire danger of a given administration unit (Forest District, National Park etc.). The organizational-technical activity should be aimed at the establishment of the following:

  1. Observation system
  2. System of alarm-command communication
  3. Network of access roads and fire access roads
  4. Fire equipment bases
  5. Water supply points
  6. Forest airplane bases

1. Observation system

The system of forest area observation is aimed at possibly early detection of a fire. The system consists of:

  • Network of fire lookout towers (either traditional or equipped with TV cameras)
  • Aerial patrols (aerial fire detection)
  • Lookout patrols (ground fire detection).

According to the decree of the minister of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources and Forestry on detailed principles of fire protection of forests “during periods of degree I, II or III of forest fire risk it is obligatory to carry observations of all forest complexes larger than 100 ha…”. The monitoring needs to be organized in forests of fire danger categories I and II, while in the forest of Fire Danger Class III it has to be conducted in agreement with the local divisional commander of the State Fire Service (SFS).

Forest fire lookout towers (observation towers): All lookout towers are placed so that they ensure optimized observation of a possibly largest area. To do so it is important to know the value of so-called visibility radius. In the lowland terrain, it ranges from 10 to 15 km. Its actual value is a very important factor when making technical projects of towers network and deciding on their number. In industrial regions air transparency is to be taken into consideration: usually, the observation radius is smaller. It is also smaller in hilly terrain.

As a rule the lookout towers are elevated a few meters above the tops of tree crowns, and they are if possible placed on tops of local highest spots (hills). The absolute height of lookout towers ranges from more than 20 meters to more than 30 m. While designing the network of lookout observation points situated on the ground the following principles need to be met:

  •       in those Forest Districts (FDs) and National Parks (NPs) belonging to of Forest Fire Danger Class I the monitoring is conducted of each stand from two independent observational points,
  •       in those FDs and NPs belonging to Forest Fire Danger Class II the monitoring is conducted of each stand from at least one observational point,
  •       in those FDs and NPs belonging to Forest Fire Danger Class III the monitoring is conducted depending on actual needs,
  •       the minimum area of a forest complex or protected ground for which separate observational (monitoring) points are designed is 1000 ha in the zone of Forest Fire Danger Class I, and 2000 ha in the area of Fire Danger Class II.

The lookout observation points are located on the ground by the due Regional Directorate of State Forests (RDSF), after obligatory consultation with the adjacent RDSF. Those forest districts and national parks able to monitor the forest area of neighboring units are obliged to strictly collaborate with the neighbors. Since the 1970s the systems of Industrial Televisions (ITV) have been used for the detection of forest fires. As a result, the observer was replaced by a camera, allowing thus for the smaller cost of lookout towers.

Aerial patrolling (aerial detection): The concept to patrol forest areas by airplanes for fire detection had been developed in the 1970s. The practical implementation of the method, however, has started at the end of the 1980s. It is a very effective method of forest area monitoring due to the large observation area (depending on ceiling and velocity of the plane) and the possibility of precise detection of a situation in case of fire, and the possibility to precise leading the fire suppression units to the actual place of fire. In order to ensure such high efficiency the intervals of patrolling are 45-60 minutes. This gives the possibility (given even the most unfavorable location of the plane) to return to the point of fire origin and detect the fire still in its initial phase of propagation.

One weakness of the aerial observations is the high cost (Tab.6). Therefore, in order to make the cost low, small light planes are used. These are first of all: Wilga, Zlin, Koliber or even gliders. The patrolling plane moves along determined routes. The patrolled routes are set by the due Regional Directorate of State Forests in agreement with Forest Districts and national parks. RDSF is in charge of aerial patrols organization over its terrain. It is obligatory to organize aerial patrolling in those RDSF included to Fire Danger Classes I or II. To carry aerial patrolling is binding when either II or III degrees of forest fire risk occurs (Tab.1) and it is the alarm center of RDSF that announces the actual degree of risk. The patrol plane is equipped with a radio-telephone allowing for communication and cooperation with the State Forests communication system as well as with the communication system of the State Fire Service (SFS). It is recommended that planes be supplied with Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) that allow precise determination of the geographical location of a fire.

Lookout-patrols (fire control patrols): In the observation system, both the lookout towers and aerial patrolling are supplemented by lookout patrols on the ground, supplied with a transportation means. Such patrolling is organized by a Forest District or National Park, particularly in the area of increased fire danger, e.g., in regions with high tourism activities, near high-intensity traffic routes and in other places lacking any monitoring. The patrols on the ground are introduced given degree III of forest fire risk. Each time the decision to launch the patrols on the ground and their area of activity is left to FD and NP.

Table 6. Fire protection activity in the State Enterprise “State Forests” in the period 1980-2000

Table 7. Protective measures of regional directorates of State Forests and National Parks depending on the actual degree of forest fire risk

2. System of alarm-command communication

The system of alarming has been based on the communication systems organized in the territorial units of State Forests and National Parks as well as in the Alarm-Command Points (ACP). The communication network is used for the running needs of forest management, but its use for forest fire protection purposes is one of the most important functions. The communication system is organized by Regional Directorate of State Forests (RDSF), in accordance with the organizational rules of work of the mobile land radio communication of RDSF. The communication network of States Forests has been under the supervision of the Director General of State Forests; in RDSF it is the Regional Director of State Forests that administers the network. It is also the Regional Director that is obliged to register the network in the State Radio Communication Agency. According to the instruction of forest area fire protection, the basic means of communication is ensured by the following equipment:

  • Forest Districts of Fire Danger Class I:

–    the stationary basic radiotelephone of forestry wave frequencies with the retransmission system enabling the use of the State Fire Service frequencies,

–      radiotelephone working in the forestry frequencies (all service vehicles),

  • Forest Districts of Fire Danger Classes II and III:

–      stationary basic radiotelephone of forestry wave frequencies,

–      radiotelephone working in the forestry frequencies (all service vehicles),

  • Sub-districts:

–      telephone or radiotelephone, according to the local needs.

The principles of introducing radiotelephones with the retransmission system on State Fire Service frequency band are settled by regional directorates of State Forests together with Provincial Headquarters of State Fire Service.

Another element of the alarm system are the Alarm-Command Points (ACP) of particular organizational units of State Forests. Their task is to alarm their own fire units as well as those of fire services and, also, to supervise the functioning of the fire protection system in their area. The following types of alarm-command points are distinguished:

  •       regional, established in a regional directorate of State Forests;
  •       local, established for a group of Forest Districts;
  •       primary, established in a single Forest Districts or National Parks, in the units belonging to Fire Danger Classes I or II.

If needed, auxiliary points are established in smaller units: parts of Forest Districts or even in forest ranges. In those Forest Districts belonging to Fire Danger Class III the Alarm-Command Points (ACP) are established following the actual need.

3. Network of Access Roads and Fire Access Roads

In order to make forest accessible for fire extinguish vehicles access, roads and fire access roads are built. The plan of forest management determines the existing network of roads and the target network of fire access roads and access roads to the water supply points. According to the binding forestry regulations, those forest roads serving also as fire access roads have to be maintained so that they were always usable and properly marked. They also have to be marked with a number. It is desirable that the distance of the most remote spot in the forest be no longer than:

  • 750 m – in forests belonging to Fire Danger Class I;
  • 1500 m – in forests belonging to Fire Danger Class II.

In forests of Fire Danger Class III it is required that roads serve all potential fireplaces, water supply points, and public roads for the fire services vehicles.

Condition of the roads is checked each time after snow thawing, after severe precipitation, military maneuvers with use of heavy equipment, after rescue actions, and also after the season of timber exporting from the forest. Any damages to roads and bridges have to be immediately repaired. It is forbidden to store timber on a road making their passage hampered.

4. Fire Equipment Bases

Forest Districts and National Parks are obliged to maintain – in places agreed with the divisional commander of State Fire Service (SFS) – the basis containing the equipment for forest fire extinguish. It is recommended to establish at least one basis for a Forest District or National Park. The bases are equipped as follows:

  • Forest Districts of Fire Danger Class I:

–    forest fire-fighting equipment (medium or light, for initial attack) or a trailer with a tank able to produce a water fire fighting stream,

–    hand-operated equipment and tools – at least universal extinguishers, spades, shovels (minimum 50 items per 10,000 ha of forest),

–     forest plows for firebreak construction (min. two items).

  • in Forest Districts of Fire Danger Class II:

–     forest fire-fighting equipment (light, for initial attack) or truck adjusted for the transport of 100-200 l water and pallets with forest universal extinguishers,

–     hand-operated equipment and tools – forest universal extinguishers (min. 10 items), spades, shovels (min. 30 items per 10,000 ha of forest),

–     forest plow for firebreak construction (min. one item).

  • in Forest Districts of Fire Danger Class III:

–     hand operated equipment and tools – forest universal extinguishers (min. 10 items), spades, shovels (min. 30 items per 10,000 ha of forest),

–     forest plow for firebreak construction (min. one item).

The equipment bases may also be equipped with additional types of fire suppression equipment, e.g., floating pumps, fire hoses, water aggregates, branches (nozzles) and chemical extinguishing agents.

5. Water supply points

According to the binding legal regulations, it is obligatory to ensure water supply for firefighting purposes of at least 50 m3 and minimum delivery efficiency of 15 dm3/s for the forest terrain within a radius of:

  • 3 km in forests of Fire Danger Class I,
  • 5 km in forests of Fire Danger Class II.

The volume of water required for forests of Fire Danger Class III is to be agreed with the divisional commander of the State Fire Service. It is obligatory to ensure road access to water reservoirs and sufficient space for maneuvering. Each point of fire water intake is designated on the ground with a signboard “Water Supply Point”. Along with access roads, signs are set up, if needed, marked with a direction arrow and the text “To Water Supply Point”.

6. Forest airplane bases

Forest airplane bases are organized by Regional Directorate of State Forests (RDSF) mainly with the aim to serve as fire protection facilities but also – for the needs of other tasks connected with forest protection and silviculture. The forest airplane bases are established using also the local airports belonging to airlines or flying clubs. However, it is envisaged to establish own forest landing bases located near the forest complexes or close to water supply reservoirs. In order to use planes more efficiently in fire suppression, it is desired that in long run a network of operational landing places be established in those RDSF belonging to Forest Fire Danger Class I so that each protected forest be in reach within 10 minutes flight. The respective figure in Fire Danger Class II RDSF is 15 minutes distance. Considering those RDSF belonging to Fire Danger Class III, the operational landing places need to be established in accordance with actual demand.

Specific rules of procedures and rescue plans have to be prepared for those forest areas larger than 100 ha. Table 6 presents the technical-organizational level of State Forests ability to face fires.

Forest Fire Suppression

The organization and carrying of fire extinguish actions in Poland is a duty of the State Fire Service (SFS). This task is being conducted by the National Firefighting and Rescue System. The system consists of 496 professional rescue-fire units of SFS (grouping about 24 thousand professional firemen) and 3114 voluntary fire services (with about 73 thousand volunteer firemen). The role of volunteer fire services in extinguishing forest fires is very important: voluntary fire services are located closer to forest terrain and therefore they are often called as first to fight a fire. A weak point of them is often poor equipment: outworn equipment is not very useful in the difficult terrain condition. Some of Forest Districts have their own volunteer fire services.

Except of the above, State Forests have been in the possession of their own rescue resources, supplied with fire extinguishing equipment. Such units, so-called fire rescue groups, are established first of all in those Forest Districts belonging to of Forest Fire Danger Class I or II. Such groups have first aid outfits and hand-operated equipment, all these being useful at the initial stages of forest fires. State Forests organize, also the system of aerial patrolling and extinguishing of forest fires. The air resources are, in case of fire extinguish action, under the command of both the State Fire Service and the Forest Service.

Three levels of firefighting unit command systems are distinguished, depending on the actual size of fire and concentration of resources available for fire suppression:

  •       Local level (divisional commander of State Fire Service), if only local resources (personnel and equipment) are involved – so-called initial attack or tactical intervention teams (small-to-medium size fires of area no larger than 10 ha);
  •       Provincial (regional) level (provincial fire chief of State Fire Service) if fire suppression would need more resources than available at a local (county) level, or, if the fire covered at least two counties, so-called strategic command (large area fires – to 100 ha and very large ones – above 100 ha);
  •      Country (central) level executed by the Chief Commandant of the State Fire Service, if fire suppression would require more resources than available at the provincial level, and each time when the fire size covers at least two provinces so-called strategic command (catastrophic fires of area exceeding 1000 ha).

Moreover, in those fires subjected to regional or central level of command, Armed Forces and Civil Protection resources may also be dispatched to assist in fire suppression.

The following equipment is used for fire suppression:

  •       Hand tools (initial attack equipment), including multiple-use original water-foam extinguishers filled at the action place,
  •       Other machinery operated by the Forest Service and useful in firefighting actions (bulldozers, plows, wood chippers),
  •       Four-wheel drive fire-tenders (all-terrain vehicles) equipped with, e.g., high-pressure pump aggregates,
  •      Airplanes and helicopters, mainly M-18 Dromader, Mi-2 and PZL Sokół.

Prescribed Burning

State Forests employees use prescribed fire (broadcast burning) in order to reduce fuel loads on clearcut areas. The rules of conducting this practice are defined in due regulations specifying the conditions under which the burning may be done and the protective measures to be undertaken.

The Nature Protection Act forbids setting fire in “meadow vegetation, pasture grounds, wasteland, ditches, along roads, train trails, or in the zones of bulrush and reed”. Burning of straw and plant wastes is admissible on agricultural lands under the condition of meeting the general rules of the Act and detailed principles set up by local self-government.

Fire (backfiring, counter fire) is occasionally used as a method of firefighting. It is mainly used when a large-size surface fire occurs or in case of stopping or containing a crown fire. This method is sometimes applied when protecting burnt terrain against another fire: burning those remained forest staff within the area of burnt place.

Fire protection connected legal regulations

The principles of forest fire prevention and control are regulated by several legal rules among which the most important are:

  •      The Forest Act puts obligations on forest owners to increase the natural resistance of forest stands, and in particular, to conduct all recommended preventive and protection measures aimed at prevention the origin and expansion of fire. If not executed, it is possible to make administrative orders requiring to follow the activity suggested by the forest management plan. The Act specifies also which forest area are not available for visitors, and it makes it possible to introduce a temporary prohibition of entering forest – in case of enhanced forest fire risk. Activities are listed that increase the fire risk and that are forbidden in forest terrain.
  •      The Fire Protection Act is the main legal regulation, addressing all topics related to fire protection. It also defines the persons and institutions responsible for proper forest fire prevention measures, and it also specifies the duties of those persons and institutions.
  •       The Decree of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on Fire Protection discusses the rules of forest fire prevention, the principles of using open fire in forests, the conditions of use of fire in forest management and the technical requirements for fire suppression (construction of fire belts, roads, water reservoirs for firefighting purposes, fire detection, bases of fire suppression equipment, rules of marking forests for fire protection purposes).
  •       The Decree of the Minister of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources and Forestry specifies in detail the principles of forest fire prevention measures to be undertaken by all forest owners and administrators, in an extent adequate to the actual Forest Fire Danger Class and the daily determined level (degree) of forest fire risk.
  •       Instruction of Fire Protection of Forested Areas is a set of principles and instructions to be respected by the State Forests. The State Forest Service is obliged to determine the Forest Fire Danger Class of a Forest District, to carry forecasts of fire risk during the forest fire season, to conduct preventive measures including training courses and propaganda (informative) activity. Forest Districts are also obliged to prepare their area of responsibility for fire suppression through the following measures:

–          Establishment of the ground observation network points;

–          Lookout patrolmen (fire control patrols);

–          Establishment of the alarm-command points;

–          Maintenance of the communication system;

–          Building and maintenance of access roads and fire access roads;

–          Ensuring readiness of fire suppression equipment;

–          Ensuring water supply;

–          Organization of forest airplane landing strip network;

–          Preparing all necessary procedures for the case of a forest fire.

The Instruction specifies also the duties of State Forests personnel both during the fire and after it has been extinguished. Those consider, among other, the safety measures of the burnt area, determination of the fire cause and assessment of the damage.


Considering the future access of Poland to the European Union (EU), several tasks will have to be accomplished in order to meet the EU standards. Among those tasks somehow connected with the system of forest fire protection, the following are considered the most important ones in order to make Poland eligible for EU structural financial support:

  •       Conduct forest classification with respect to fire danger in a way consistent with EU standards,
  •       Modernization of forest roads,
  •       Encouraging the establishment of associations private forest owners,
  •       Developing the water supply system.

The fact that the absolute majority of Polish forests are under the administration of a single organization, the State Forests, allows for both effective management and prevention against fire and firefighting. The financial resources available, however, are still insufficient considering the actual situation. The role of financial aid programs of the EU has been an important help. Funds obtained this way continued to be helpful in financing many projects of technical support, e.g., in fire-danger forecasting and monitoring of forests, and for purchase of fire suppression equipment. These projects are conducted, first of all, within the cooperation programs of bordering regions of two or more states. Another very important topic will be the international collaboration in the field of meteorological cover and forest fire forecasting. This last postulate fits perfectly the 2000 recommendations of the Second Conference Baltic Conference on Forest Fires (Kuopio, Finland 2000).


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Karlikowski, T. (ed.).1992. The estimate of the forest fire danger in Poland with particular regard the fire situation of 1992. Information Bulletin of Department of Forest Fire Protection [Forest Research Institute] 1992, Special Issue No.1, pp. 2 – 64 [in Polish].

Podgórski, M. (ed.). 2000. Fire protection. Regulations set. Fire safety of forests, 2000. Firex, 42 pp. [in Polish].

Sakowska, H. 1994. Human causes of fire in the forest. Teczka Lesnego Prelegenta, No. X, 4-7. ZG SIiTLiD, Warsaw [in Polish].

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Santorski, Z. 1994. Which forest burns more easily? Teczka Leśnego Prelegenta, No. X, 8-11, ZG SIiTLiD, Warsaw [in Polish].

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Ubysz, B. 1997, The evaluation of an electrophysiological method for assessing Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) individuals and stands viability after a forest fire. Ph. D. Thesis, Forest Research Institute, Warsaw [in Polish].

Ubysz, B. 1998. The effect of fire on pine stands. In: First Baltic Conference on Forest Fires:, Poland 5-8 May 1998 [ed. T. Karlikowskiego], Warsaw, MOSZNiL, FAO/ECE/ILO, IBL, NFOSiGW, DGLP, 256-268 [in Polish].

Ubysz, B. 1998. The evaluation of an electrophysiological method for assessing Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) individuals and stands viability after a forest cover fire. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Forest Fire Research and 14thConference on Fire and Forest Meteorology. Luso-Coimbra, Portugal, 16-20 November 1998, 1795-1808.

Ubysz, B. 2000. Dynamics trends in forest fire risk in polish forest. Proceedings of the 2nd Baltic Seminar and Exercise in Forest Fire Information and Resources Exchange – BALTEX FIRE 2000, 5-9 June 2000, 13pp.

Wiler, K. 2000. Forest fire protection. SA PSP, Poznan [in Polish].

Wisniewski, W. 2001. Organization and technology of forest firefighting. SA PSP, Poznan [in Polish].

IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Barbara Ubysz
Department of Forest Fire Protection.
Forest Research Institute.
3 Bitwy Warszawskiej Street,
00-973 Warsaw

Fax:            ++48-22-715-0422
Tel:            ++48-22-715-0424

e-mail:       B.Ubysz@ibles.waw.pl



Ryszard Szczygiel
Józef Tuliszkowski’s Scientific and Research
Centre for Fire Protection
ul. Nadwislanska 213
05-420 Józefów

Fax:            +48-22-789-3148
Tel:            +48-22-789-4681
e-mail:       cnbop@cnbop.pl

[1] The 1990-1991 data show exclusively the newly established points and maintenance cost of those earlier existing (without including those points where no financial cost was recorded).
[2] Existing ones.
[3] According to the rules one base per Forest District has to be established (minimum). No update data are currently available. Thus only the number of Forest Districts is given.

IFFN No. 27
Country Notes

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