The Russian Far East region differs from the other parts of Russia by a high fire danger and frequent forest fires due to the specific climatic and forest vegetation characteristics. The frequent recurrence of extreme dry seasons, abundance of combustible materials representing high fire danger, mountain relief, inaccessibility of territory, and the hard wind regime in the end predetermine the high probability of forest fire occurrence, the speed of their spread, and also the difficulties to control them.
In addition the level of financing and material support of forest fire services sharply decreased during the last decade. This has negatively influenced the efficiency of their work to prevent, detect and to put out forest fires in time.
As a consequence of these adverse circumstances, anomalous dry seasons which naturally occur in 10-15 year intervals, inevitably predetermine the occurrence of mass forest fire. In such extreme dry seasons up to 150 wildfires or more burn simultaneously. Many of them reach catastrophic dimensions and are considered as natural disasters. Statistical data from Khabarovsk Territory for the period 1966-1998 reveal the tendency of increasing occurrence of wildfire catastrophes (Tab.1).
Tab.1. Forest fire statistics of the Primorskii and Khabarovsk Territories for the period 1966-1998
Number of Fires
Forest Area Burned (x 1000 ha)
Number of Fires
Forest Area Burned (x 1000 ha)
Total for 33 years
Average / year
The statistical data testify that up to 1400 fires occur during extreme fire seasons and the forest area affected by fire varies from 300,000 up to 2,000,000 ha and more. On the average 780 fires occur annually, and the average forest area burned is 190,000 ha. The long-term average of fire size is 325 ha/fire.
Extreme fire situation in Khabarovsk Territory for the last 50 years were observed during the dry seasons of 1949, 1954, 1968, 1976, 1988, and 1998. The situation in 1998 which was especially severe and complex offered an opportunity to evaluate the ecological and economic damages not only on the territory but to consider the diapason of ecological effects from a local/regional levels up to the global level and to put the fires into the context of the large fires which occurred in the same year in Southeast Asia (Indonesia), Brazil and other countries.
1. Characteristic of the Forest Fire Situation in Khabarovsk Territory in 1998
The mass outbreak of forest fires in 1998 appeared already in spring. Starting in mid of May till mid of June about 30-40 fires occurred daily. From mid of June the fire situation became complicated and daily amount of fires reached several hundreds. There were huge concentrations of both small-sized, and large-sized fires on an area of hundreds of square kilometers, basically in the central and boreal parts of Khabarovsk Territory, in particular in Low Priamurya.(Fig.1).
Fig.1. Forest fire map of Low Priamurya region at the end of the 1998 fire season. This fire map was digitized with the assistance of the Amur Design Office of the Russian Branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
The situation got completely out of control. Because of continuous and dense near-ground smoke coverage the monitoring of fire spread was impossible by any means of ground, airborne or satellite observation. This situation lasted until 20 October 1998.
As a result the area affected by fires reached 2,389,000 ha between May and October 1998 (Tab.2). In some forest enterprises the area burned reached up to 28-29 % of the total forest enterprise areas.
Tab.2. Forest area burned by wildfires in Khabarovsk Territory in 1998.
Name of Forest Enterprise
Size of Forest (ha)
Area burned in 1998
The majority of fires (more than 60 %) fell into the litter-humus category. This resulted in high tree mortality. The average mortality in forests reached about 80-85 % or 95-99 m3/ha. The total losses of wood damaged by fire was ca. 154 million m3.
2. Basic reasons of extreme fire conditions.
A high potential fire danger in forests in boreal and central areas of Kray was already noted in spring. In April – May the precipitation exceeded the average by 2-3 times and air temperature was above 2-5° C of monthly averages. It led to the fast thawing of the snow cover, but as the soils were frozen, the intensive surface flow was formed and the moisture did not penetrated into the soil. As a result by the beginning of summer the soil and the forest fuels had a high deficiency of moisture content.
At the same time, in north of the territory in June rainfall was reduced to 20-50 % of the monthly averages and in the central regions only 15-20 % of its monthly average of 50-75 mm. In July the precipitation was down to 0-20 %, in August to 20-50 % (75-100 mm).
Such sharp deflections from average annual rainfall averages in 1998 were determined by summer atmospheric processes. Usually in May – June there an anticyclone is formed under effect of monsoon circulation above the Okhotsk Sea and leads to dry and cool weather in the territory. The average precipitation is rather low (50-75 mm). However, in the second half of July the anticyclone is shifted and south cyclones with abundant rainfall begin to influence Primorye and Priamurye. Tropical humid air is common in July – August stretching from low latitudes up to Primorye and Khabarovsk territories. In 1998 the highest latitude reached was 30-350 N. The cyclones caused catastrophic floods in the basin of the Yangtse river in China, as well as in in Korea and in Japan. At the same time an extensive tropospheric crest which caused dry and hot weather was above the Okhotsk Sea, Khabarovsk territory and Yakutia . The air temperature was 2-5 0 above average.
To put out forest fires effectively, the high material maintenance of all forest fire services must be ensured and requires adequate financial support. The continuous decline of budgets which are available for fire protection work in the Krays and financed from central sources continued during the past years. In 1997 only 24 % of the average forest fire protection. budget was available.
The situation is revealed by comparing 1998 with an analogue year with similar dryness and fire danger. With a total of 1224 forest fires the year 1988 had the same potential as the year 1998, but due to the availability of resources for fire prevention, detection and suppression and both sufficient material and financial support, the total area of fires was contained to only 353,000 ha. Therefore economic factors which determined the degree of the forest fire catastrophe in 1998 should be interpreted in comparison with 1988.
The financial support from central sources was practically absent for some years. The amount of funding available for forest fire protection in 1988 was 3.75 rubles / ha ($US 25) and 0.9 rubles/ha ($US 0.6) in 1998. This inevitably led to the weakening of forest fire services, decrease of volumes of the fire-prevention arrangement of forest territory, reduction of staff of working in forest protection. Also the number of staff personnel of the aerial forest fire protection service was sharply reduced by 3.1 times in comparison with 1988.
The situation of the 1998 was even more complicated because in addition to low provision of finances and technical means there was also no means for preparation of the fire season. Consequently the forest fire equipment was not ready for operations and there were difficulties in providing fuel reserves, food supply and training of forest fire teams.
Alongside with the natural factor – the extremely dry season – a second factor which caused the extreme fire conditions in the forests of the Kray is anthropogenic. The majority of forest fires is caused by humans and significantly contribute to mass fire situations. Multi-year statistics testify that 9 of 10 fires are caused by human activity. On holidays the amount of fire starts makes up to 40% of the total weekly fires. Up to 93% of all fires burned in a 10-kilometer zone around the settlements and 3-kilometer strips along the roads most visited by the population.
During the current year, in connection with an economic crisis and unemployment, many inhabitants of settlements and townspeople made their way into the forest on various crafts. As a rule, they these people are inexperienced forest users and carelessly cause the outbreak of forest fires. In addition arson was another major cause of wildfires in connection with increasing illegal logging and high competition between forest users.
2.4 Administrative Organization
Experience of 1988 shows that the system of the fire fighting organization which existed in the USSR as a whole was able to control extreme fire situations.
In 1998 alongside with insufficiency of financial and material means the essential administrative and technical problems, concerning the detection and control of fires appeared in connection with the disintegration of the old social and economic system. This was especially shown with regards to mobilization and attraction of the population to fire fighting.
As a whole, from mid May till 15 July 1998 when about 30-40 fires were biurning daily, forest fire teams of forest enterprises, the Far East Air Base and timber industry enterprises were involved the fire-fighting with the mobilization of 44 stations with forest fire equipment and fire chemicals and about 350 firemen, 290 personnel of the aerial fire service, bulldozers and other machines.
Practically all state forest protection service was involved in organization of fire fighting works, control of observance of the fire prevention rules, work on check posts. 18 caterpillar all-terrain vehicles were bought, converted and sent to forest enterprises by Forest Management.
The accepted measures allowed forest guarding to cope with fires independently during two months. For that period of time 480 forest fires were put out, and the area affected by fires was 80,000 ha. The average area per fire was 165 ha, thus during the first two days 65 % of all fires were put out.
However, from the middle of July the fire situation in Kray was very complicated due to the anomalous dry weather and the continuous smoke cover of territory. On 17 July 1998 the state of forest fire emergency was declared and the free access in the forest was closed for the population and transport.
To put out the fires all forces and means of forest management and the air base were involved, the regional reserves of manual fire-prevention stock and field property for 1050 persons were opened. All reserve of fire prevention property and month store of a food supply for 500 persons were used up. The month store of food supply for 1000 persons, 1000 tons of fuel and lubricant supply , and 33.0 million rubles. were assigned for fire fighting. In addition the forces of the Regional Department of Disaster Management (EMERCOM of Russia) with up to 120 persons and 25 technical units were involved. The Ministry of Defense contributed up to 360 persons and 96 technical units, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs provided 220 persons and 25 technical units. From other regions of the country 140 persons of the Aerial Fire Service were directed to the Kray. In the Kray a fire retardant airplane and two amphibious airplanes BE-12P which made 95 drops of water on fires (about 550 tones of water) were put into operation.
The accepted measures allowed to stop fire spreading close to settlements, industrial and defense objects, and to prevent human victims. During the most dangerous days more than 100 tractors, 50 all-terrain vehicles, 30 fire engines and other machinery, up to 2000 persons and 500 units of technical units, including 150 bulldozers were involved in fire fighting,.
Under conditions of strong smoke cover, when the use of aircraft was practically impossible, the satellite information greatly helped the forest fire services. Under extreme conditions it gave the opportunity to detect fires and to direct the forest fire units.
However, under the extremely dry conditions it was impossible to stop the intense and fast spreading fires, especially in remote regions where they transformed in large fires with individual sizes of up to 25-30,000 ha and more.
3. Ecological and Economic Estimation of the Forest Fire Damages
The estimation of forest fire damage bears a lot of methodical complexities therefore there are no universally standardized methods of damage assessment. We estimated the fire damage according to The Express Methods of an Ecological-Economic Evaluation of Fire Damage, developed in 1977 by the Far East Research Institute, Khabarovsk, and the Instructions for Fire Damage Determination, ratified by the Federal Forestry Service of Russia (Order ? 53 03.04.98).
Thus, the damage estimates include not only the direct loss of marketable resources, but also equivalent environmental losses with regard to forest ecosystem formation and functions. As a result the general fire damage of 1998 in the Khabarovsk Territory were in the range of 4.5 to 6.0 billion rubles (equivalent to ca. $US 1.0 billion). This damage considers the state of wood damage for the first year. Taking into account the dynamics of tree mortality and an expected increase of damages up to 2-3 times in the next three years the losses will increase to ca. 8-9 billion rublesl. The increase of wood losses during the next 2-3 years will take place due to gradually accelerating mortality of fire-damaged trees and the inevitable intensive outbreak of insects and diseases, particularly wood-boring and bark beetles, fungi).
It is important to note, that significant tree mortality was due to the long-lasting drought which resulted in high-intensity stand replacement fires, burning of the humus/litter layer down to the mineral soil, and the development of crown fires in fir stands and peat forests (organic Sphagnurn terrain). In the latter two forest types the tree mortality was complete (100 %). Forests burned by surface fires will undergo an increase of mortality during the next two years and reach more than 90% of the standing volume. Out of the total damaged forest no more than 40 million m3 of timber can be immediately salvaged.. Considering the restricted transport availability and potential opportunity of development for the next 3 years about 15 million m3 can be salvaged.
Except the direct losses of arboreal raw resources the significant losses of animal resources are doubtless. According to data of All-Russian Research Institute of Hunting the loss of squirrels, stoats and musk deer reaches 70-80 %, and roe deer, red deer, and wild boar will suffer losses of to 15-25 %. The direct damage of the hunting economy in 1998 reached about 70 million rubles.
The fires unconditionally influenced biodiversity. We believe that zoo-biodiversity was damaged essentially and in same places irreversibly, not only due to direct mortality or migration from the territory affected by fire, but also due to the destruction of food supply. For example, the depression of mouse rodents is inevitable because of (a) the loss of a food supply for predators, and (b) the loss of the forest production agents. It is possible to expect also, that at the first stage there will be an intensive change of the composition of the entomofauna due to the outbreak of secondary pests and fungal flora. At present it is impossible to evaluate everything. We also believe that the fires were fatal for many populations of animals, including the spawning of salmon in the Amur river.
The complete loss of forest production capacity of a part of forest lands can be referred to direct losses in forestry and indirect results of fires. About 40 % of the burned-over land area are on the territory of traditional aboriginal minorities of the Far North which completely lost the traditional resource base. The influence of fires also reached the vast territories Zabaikalia and Yakutia which were affected by extremely high smoke pollution involving increased human morbidity and decrease of photosynthetically active radiation. The area in which bio-production processes were affected by the indirect effects of fire is in the magnitude of 100 million ha.
On an area of 1.5 million ha of the burned forest 60 % of the standing trees are dead and 40 % damaged by fires, i.e., the loss of live phytomass (only arboreal) is more than 100 milion m 3. More than 900,000 ha completely lost their carbon deposition function.
As a result of a fire there was single carbon emission of about 60 million t. And the emission is not compensated by photosynthetic activity due to destruction of stand. The regeneration of this function will be very slow in accordance with forest regeneration. Due to complete humus combustion and deep burn-out of soil ca. 200-300,000 ha of forests are transformed and the regeneration and carbon sequestration function is destroyed. It is also important to note that the processes of post-fire decomposition (tree mortality, etc.) will stimulate carbon emission from 3 up to 10 t/ha of carbon annually. Since the ability of a alive forest to act as a sink of 0.6-0.8 t/ha of carbon the fire-affected sites will remain to be carbon sources for the next decade.
The dynamics of the decomposition of fire-damaged trees show that burned trunks are gradually destroyed over a rather long time period (a decade and more) and remain standing even on mountain slopes. Remaining organic materials protect the soil after fire, but such sites become susceptible to a second fire and represent a major problem for forest restoration works.
4. Carbon Emission from Forest Fires
The influence of forest fires on carbon flux to the atmosphere is determined by two basic processes, (a) the physico-chemical process of releasing carbon in the form of gaseous compounds and aerosols by combustion, and (b)the biological process of slow release of carbon as a result of biological destruction and decomposition of plants killed by fire but not consumed (post-fire emission); this process may last up to several decades.
In order to assess the carbon emission as a result of forest fires it is necessary to know the phytomass consumed by fire and the amount of dead phytomass remaining on site after the fire.
I. General: Forested area affected by fire in 1998
Total area burned 2,201,800 ha
surface fires: 1,997,600 ha (88 %) crown fires: 242,200 (11 %) peat fires: 22,600 ha (1 %).
II. Phytomass of the burnt organic material under different kinds of fires (t/ha dry weight)
III. Phytomass of tree dead organic matter in fire-damaged stands (t/ha dry weight)
After surface fire: 13.0 After crown fire: 51.0 After peat fire: 33.0
Estimation of fire carbon emission
The release of carbon from fire is estimated using the formula:
G = k M, t
Where k = 0.5 – constant quotient representing the average content of carbon in forest fuels (FF); M – mass of burnt FF (t)
The total mass of burnt FF is determined by summarizing the burnt fuel loads from all fire types. The burnt mass is determined as product of the area affected by fire and the burnt mass per ha.
Hence, at mass: M = 1937.6 ´ 12 + 242.2 ´ 30 + 22 ´ 120 = 33,157,000 t the fire carbon emission will be:
G = 0.5 ´ 33,157,000 = 16,578,500 t
Evaluation of post-fire carbon emissions
The scales of carbon emission after fire estimate under the formula:
Where k = 0.5 – quotient of conversion of organic substance mass into carbon t = 25 – duration of forest regeneration period of burnt-out areas (years) T = 10 – duration of destruction period of dead trees (years) P – mass (dry weight) of annual tree mortality after fire (t)
The mass of annual tree mortality is determined by the sum of phytomass of dead trees from all types of fires. The mass of tree mortality according to the fire type is equal to the product of the area affected by fire and the dry weight of dead trees per ha, and will be equal:
P = 1937.6 ´ 13 + 242.8 ´ 51 + 22 ´ 33 = 38,298,000 ha
and emission after fire:
R = 0.5 ´ 25 ´ 38,298,000: 10 = 47,872,500 t
Thus, the total carbon emissions of forest fires are:
S = 16,578,5 + 47,872,500 = 64,451,000 t
5. Forecast of Long-Term Consequences After Fire
A prediction of the long-term consequences of catastrophic fires is based on studies of post-fire dynamic processes which were conducted over many years. Following possible negative transformations can be expected:
Change of the structure of forest lands and the state of biotopes and habitats. About 30 % of the burned area will loose its forest character for a rather long period and will turn in moors, stone-detritus, grass-shrubs and shrub waste lands within the next 20-30 years. The regeneration of forests on the remaining area (70 %) in the average will go through a reproduction period of 15 to 20 years. The possible pathways will be as follows: will take place about 10 % of the forest lands will be regenerated naturally by coniferous species (mainly by larch); 50 % will be regenerated by soft-leaved species with regeneration of coniferous (basic species) within the next 60-80 years.
The ecosystem productivity, particularly the arboreal biomass, will decrease as compared with the initial condition at a minimum by 30%.
Increase of fuel accumulation due collapsing trees and rapid spread of grass will increase the wildfire potential. A recurrence of fires in intervals of 5 to 8 years is predicted.
The loss of forest in water catchment basins up to the limits of critical cover (50-70 %) will result in essential or irreversible transformations of hydrothermal regimes with consequences on and possible losses of spawning places of salmon and other valuable fish species.
General impoverishment of biodiversity will take place due to the direct destruction of unique and rare flora and fauna on burned-over areas passed and subsequent impoverishment of the composition of the post-fire phytocenoses.
The quality and topology of distribution of food resources for wildlife will be changed and will have long-term consequences on population dynamics. The depression of wildlife populations will also negatively affect forest utilization.
6. Global Consequences of Catastrophic Fires
There is no doubt that a regional catastrophe of such scale essentially influences global ecological, social and economic processes. However, the role and degree of these consequences, and also the threshold sizes of the planetary significance of regional stresses, practically are not yet investigated.
In the case of the 1998 fire disasters in the Far East of Russia the following impacts must be noted which have transboundary impacts or are of global significance: (a) during almost the whole vegetative period of 1998 a dense near-ground smoke layer covered a large territory of more than 100 million ha, including a parts of China and North Korea, with climatic effects being similar to a “nuclear winter”; (b) negative impact on the carbon pool; (c) impoverishment of biodiversity and number of populations of migratory species (both land and water); (d) transport of large amounts of ash into the Okhotsk Sea and the Japanese Sea; (e) influence on variability of climate parameters in the Northeastern part of the Asian continent; (f) negative influence on wood resources and trade associated with negative socio-economic impacts in countries of the Asia-Pacific Region; (g) loss of natural heritage sites of international significance.
7. Measures of Rehabilitation and Damage Control in Fire-Affected Forest Lands
From the strategic point of view of fire disaster mitigation and rehabilitation of forest lands it is necessary to:
Concentrate first of all efforts not so much on reforestation, as an avoidance of the following catastrophe. With that end in view it is required to
reorganize the fire management system;
provide the fire services, the forest service and other agencies involved in fire prevention and the forest enterprises with modern state-of-the-art fire fighting equipment;
carry out fire-prevention measures as integrated element of forestry in accordance with scientific norms;
improve airborne forest fire monitoring and ground-based fire detection and patrolling;
increase the regular budgets for fire prevention measures.
Urgently speed up salvage logging operation in burned-over forests;
Utilize to the full extent the regeneration potential from unburned forest fragments within the next five years;
Establish plantations only in accessible sites by using fast-growing species in order to speed up carbon sequestration;
Concentrate and prioritize planning and implementation of forest cultures in protection forests in water catchment regions and unburned forest fragments with a high protective value for habitat rehabilitation of rare and the most valuable wildlife animal species.
Realize biotechnical measures for the rehabilitation of fire-affected habitats and the regeneration of populations of rare and valuable animals.
Dimitri F. Efremov and Mikhail A. Sheshukov Far East Forestry Research Institute 71, Volochaevskaya Street Khabarovsk, 680 030 Russia
Additional information on the area affected by fire in the Far East region is given in the image below.
Fig.2. Satellite composite of the area affected by fire from 10 April 1998 to 20 October 1998 in the Far East / Sakhalin region using NOAA/AVHRR 12A data. (Copyright: 1999 Computer Center Tohoku University, Japan, firstname.lastname@example.org)