Russian Federation – Environmental Emergency/Forest Fires OCHA Situation Report No. 3

R e l i e f W e b
Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
Date: 13 Oct 1998

Russian Federation – Environmental Emergency/Forest Fires OCHA Situation Report No. 3


Russian Federation – Environmental Emergency/Forest Fires
OCHA-Geneva Situation Report No. 3
13 October 1998


1. Nature of the Disaster

Forest fires continue to severely affect large areas of Far Eastern Russia, especially the Khabarovsk region and the island of Sakhalin. This sitrep will report findings of UNDAC mission to Khabarovsk Krai (Territory). The emergency is considered to be of international significance in terms of negative impacts on biodiversity and potential global warming. It is also important to recognise that unlike many natural disasters such as volcanoes and earthquakes, forest fires will be annual events. If circumstances are not improved for next year, the international community could be faced with even worse impacts should the fires return.

2. Area Affected

Khabarovsk Krai covers about 82 million hectares, and the Russian Federal Forestry Services (FFS) reports that forests cover some 52.5 million hectares of which nearly 90% are potentially exploitable. The area is more than 6000km from Moscow. In total, it is likely that more than 2 million ha have been burned this summer. The Krai is divided into three forest zones – South, Central and North. The South, including the cities of Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk -on-Amur, and the Centre have been the focus of fire-fighting operations. However, most of the worst fires have occurred in the Central and Northern area. The Northern zone is drier and has not received any precipitation for over four months. It is also extremely remote, with few roads and a very small population that relies on hunting.

Official statistics suggest that “fire years” happen regularly. Large scale fires were registered in 1954, 1976 and 1998 (i.e a 22 year period), while somewhat smaller fires occurred in 1968, 1978 and 1988 (a ten year period). However, there is no guarantee that conditions might not occur next year that could be just as difficult as in 1998.

Since the beginning of 1998 some 1028 individual fires have been reported. Emergency workers have been able to tackle most of them, but not without significant difficulty and expense. A State of Emergency was declared on 17th July. At the height of the emergency, eighteen enormous fires were registered, each one affecting between 20,000 – 35,000 ha. At one point, the authorities were trying to deal with 94 fires simultaneously. As of 9th October, 941 fires were successfully tackled.

The Krai Emergency Operations Centre reported that as of 9th October, there were still 57 active fires in the Krai, burning over 407,053 ha. Therefore, each remaining fire has an average size of over 7,000ha. The remaining fires are concentrated in five out of the seventeen regions in the krai – Komsomolsk, Solnechny, Ulchsky, Nikolayevsk and Nanay.

Nikolayevsk region was the most damaged and from mid July aerial surveillance had to be stopped because the smoke was too bad for airborne operations.

Authorities estimate that up to 85% of fires are caused by members of the public who have been forced by the economic situation in the country to forage more deeply in the wood areas for hunting, fishing and collection of forest products such as mushrooms. Possible causes included dropping of cigarettes, cooking fires etc. There is no suggestion of malicious fire-starting. Hunters report that it is extremely unlikely that hunters are to blame given their experience, training and reliance on the environment but that city dwellers forced into more foraging might not be as aware of the dangers. The remaining 15% of fires is thought to be from lightning strikes.

3. Impact

There are severely key impacts:

a. Human Health
b. Economic & Forestry Industry
c. Environment
d. Emergency Response Capacity

a. Human Health

There have been no fatalities as a result of the fire, nor have any settlements been destroyed in the krai; this is largely attributed to the aggressive and proactive protection provided by the regional fire-fighting operation.

However, health has suffered to some extent by large urban areas being polluted by choking smoke from the fires. The Russian Ministry of Emergencies (EMERCOM) reports that there are five large cities in the krai with a total population of some 1,600,000. The city of Khabarovsk has a population of over 6000,000 and Komsomolsk-on-Amur has over 300,000. These cities were both affected by high pollution levels. The Regional Sanitation and Epidemiological authorities report levels of carbon monoxide reached between 3.13 times the Maximum Permissible Concentration (MPC) over a period of weeks, with occasional levels reaching as high as 24 times the MPC. Although no evacuations were ordered, contingency plans were developed in case the situation had not improved. In the event, these plans were not required to be implemented.

b. Economic & Forestry Industry

EMERCOM reported that initial estimates of economic damage amount to some 400 million roubles (USD 27 million assuming a rate of 1:15). Some 79.2 million roubles (USD 5.3 million) has been spent directly on fire-fighting.

Khabarovsk was reported as being one of the most important areas for forestry in the entire country; furthermore, the areas affected by the fires are among the most important areas in the krai for the industry. Subsequently, the fires have had and will continue to have a major impact on the industry and the local economy. There are several key elements:

– The industry is already in the process of being re-structured to make it more efficient. The Maximum Allowable Cut is 21 million cubic metres of timber per annum, yet last year they only managed to extract 4.5 million cubic metres. Therefore, there is something basically inefficient with the industry that needs to be adjusted to make the most of the sustainable yield of the resource. Plans were being drawn-up to take the industry into the next century before the fires struck.

– In addition, the market for timber in the Far East has been depressed following the general economic problems in the region. Prices have therefore been depressed.

– Therefore, the industry was already in a position of relative weakness before the fires made the situation worse.

– The area affected has included some of the most valuable stands of timber. It has not just been low grade areas that have been affected. The latest estimates is that some 15 million cubic metres of high quality timber has been lost.

– The logging companies that helped with the fire-fighting have not been able to carry out their normal work; therefore production has slowed. In Komsomolsk-on-Amur region, officials estimate that the timber industry has lost more than 15 million roubles (USD 1 million) in potential work because of having to shift resources to fire-fighting.

– The logging companies provided access to fuel, equipment and personnel, apparently on the understanding that the authorities would be in a position to re-imburse them in due course. It now appears that unless circumstances change, there will be no such re-imbursement forthcoming. This will inevitably place an additional strain of companies already being affected by general difficult economic conditions. There is the threat of companies failing, with knock-on impacts on the local workforce and economy.

– Forests damaged by fire will take at least 50 years to re-establish, especially compared with tropical forests which grow much faster than the boreal taiga forests of eastern Russia. Therefore, the economic impacts will be felt for a significantly long time.

– For example, the FFS report that some 300,000 ha which were burned in 1976 have not yet recovered. These areas in turn provided good areas for fires to spread quickly, making a bad situation worse.

– A relatively large proportion of the population of the krai are of aborigine origin and make living from the land (e.g. in Nanay region some 17% of the population); they rely heavily on hunting and fishing and the impacts of the fires over large areas of land will impact them directly and possibly severely.

c. Environment

This is one of the key problems and makes the fires of global significance. It covers several areas:

i. Climatic Impacts

It is too early to be able to predict the full implications of the fires, but having such enormous areas burning for so long will almost certainly have some impacts that could be felt at the global level. There is potential for implications on global warming through the release of carbon dioxide, climate alterations through the massive heat output and potential implications on the ozone layer. The Far East Regional Institute of Forestry Management (part of the FFS) is suggesting that the smoke and high temperatures could have had a part to play in preventing the normal cyclones that should have arrived in the region. As such, the possible implication is that the heavy rain and flooding in neighboring China might have been exacerbated because the rain that would have been spread across the whole of the Far East was restricted and fell in a limited area which catastrophic impacts. This hypothesis has not been investigated in sufficient depth as yet.

ii. Biodiversity Impacts

It is recognised that forest fires are a natural and important part of ecological succession in boreal forests. Therefore, fires in themselves are both natural and necessary. However, it is the scale of the current fires that could cause grave ecological impacts.

The area is extremely rich in biodiversity and includes numerous reserves and two Ramsar Sites at Lakes Bolon and Oudyl are registered under the Ramsar Convention on Internationally Important Wetlands. The affected area is also the habitat of several internationally endangered species registered under the IUCN Red Book, species protected under the CITES Convention (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species), the Russian Red Book on Endangered Species and includes the rare and endangered Amur Tiger. The fires have destroyed the habitat and also affected the tiger’s main prey species: the wild boar.

It is too early to say with any degree of confidence what the exact ecological impacts will be in the short and long term. However, the experience of other areas affected by such disasters can provide a clue to the potential implications.

Although the main nesting season was over by the height of the fires, apart from direct damage to habitat, food chain and individual species loss, the State Committee for Environment is concerned about the potential impacts on birds caused by early forced migration, changing migration pattern and the possible weakening of bird stocks as a result. Concern has been expressed that over a wide area, the fires will lead to a reduction in biological diversity and simplified species composition as opportunistic species re-colonise at the expense of other species.

The rivers system might also be affected by pollution from the fires. The river system, recognised as an Intentionally Important Wetland under the Ramar Convention, contains some 130 species of fish including commercial species such as Salmon and Sturgeon. Concern was expressed by the Committee on the Environment that the loss of tree cover will affect the temperatures of small rivers and lakes which were shaded by the forest. As a result, there could be a change in invertebrate populations with knock-on effects further up the food chain.

Some landscapes which have been recognised at Natural Monuments have also been lost.

iii. Resource Management Impacts

The hunting industry has also been affected; the regional hunting authorities have tentatively estimated that an additional 2, 700,000 roubles (USD 180,000) of damage has been caused to hunting and game stock. This does not include damage to the food base but covers impacts on such vital local species as sable, deer and squirrel.

Soil resources have also been damaged. The fires have been burning deep into soils and will have killed off large amounts of soil fauna and flora, effectively sterilising large areas. Recovery may take a considerable amount of time in the harsh taiga environment. Furthermore, the loss of vegetation cover on mountain terrain will lead to increased soil erosion and reduction in soil quantity and quality and down slope contamination and blocking of water courses.

Water resources will also be affected. In the high mountain areas some small creeks and lakes will disappear. Others will be blocked by falling tree trunks and fire debris. Virtually all the Water Protection Zones along the rivers were burned down. These are enforced by law to ensure the water balance is maintained. Along the Amur a width of at least 1km of forest is required on each bank, while the minimum size on all rivers is 25m of forest on both banks. The removal of this forest zone will lead to increased water runoff, increased erosion and possible increased downstream flooding.

As winter arrives, ash will be brought down the rivers. This could have direct impacts on the vital salmon breeding streams in the region. The Amur river system is a very important habitat for commercial salmon and caviar production. The fisheries industry is third (in economic terms) to timber and mineral processing in the krai.

The pollution of the river by fire debris could prevent the salmon from returning to usual spawning grounds. This impact will be felt for several years and Fisheries authorities in the region are estimating damage to the salmon industry worth some 9 million roubles (USD 600, 000) each year for the next 3-6 years.

d. Emergency Response Capacity

After fighting the fires for many months without adequate resources, the response infrastructure including personnel and equipment is extremely stretched. Manpower is suffering from long periods of emergency commitment; equipment cannot be repaired or replaced sufficiently to ensure an appropriate response to any further emergencies that might arise. Many staff have not been paid for months. In addition, there are reported shortages of food, clothing and shelter for emergency workers. Provisions from the Federal Government in August have now been exhausted.

4. Projected Evolution

The fires continue to burn extensively; however, with the onset of winter it is likely that the worst of the situation is over and that control will be established over all fires by the end of the year. However, there is no guarantee that next year will not provide the same conditions for fires. The response capacity of the authorities is exhausted and will not be able to cope with any further demands made upon it.

The economic consequences of the fires will be felt for many years; the forestry industry is already weakened and unless equipment and fuel borrowed by the authorities is reimbursed, the companies will both be further weakened themselves and also be less inclined to assist local authorities in future times of need.


5. Organisation: National & Local Authorities

Regional authorities are leading the response to the emergency. The Emergency committee includes relevant agencies such as the regional offices of the Federal Forestry Service (FFS), EMERCOM, State Committee on Environment and the Khabarovsk Administration. The Committee is chaired by a Vice-Governor of the krai and secretariat support is provided by krai representatives of EMERCOM, backed up by the resource of the Far East Regional Centre of EMERCOM which is based in Khabarovsk. An Emergency Operations Room, manned by officers and support staff from EMERCOM, provides 24-hour coverage of the emergency and prepares reports and options for the Emergency Committee.

Sub-groups have been established as required in affected settlements to ensure efficient decision-making. A network of officials throughout the region assisted in spreading messages to advise the public how to respond to smoke pollution. The media was also used extensively to get advice to the public.

At the operational forest fire-fighting level, control is vested in the Far East Forest Protection Air Base of the Aerial Forest Fire Service of the FFS. This Organisation has helicopters, aircraft and smoke jumper personnel at their service. They co-ordinate the aerial fire spotting, initial attack and direct ground resources to ensure an integrated approach to the fires.

Fire-fighters come from several sources – from EMERCOM 120 personnel and 25 items of heavy equipment organised into three Emergency Mobile Teams, protect settlement and strategic infrastructure such as military installations and oil pipelines from the fire; FFS Forest Management personnel are involved in direct forest fire-fighting and fire break creation; FFS Forest Protection Air Base aircraft and personnel including smoke jumpers; the Ministry of Defence has provided 360 personnel and 96 items of machinery and fire brigades under the Ministry of Interior comprising 220 personnel and 25 items of machinery have been instrumental in protecting settlements. Logging companies have loaned equipment and personnel to assist.

Other regions have provided 180 smoke jumpers, 2 helicopters and 2 AN-24 aircraft. When the Governor of Khabarovsk appealed to the Government in Moscow, an Inter-Agency Committee was established under the Minister of EMERCOM. The Committee agreed o release the following items to support the local administration: 1.5 million roubles, 5 excavators, 5 cranes, 10 lorries, 5 bulldozers, 1200 tonnes of aviation fuel, 650 tonnes of diesel, 450 tonnes of gasoline, 10, 000 cans of meat, 10,000 cans of fish, 60,000 tonnes of flour, 20,000 tonnes of sugar and 5000 cans of milk. These items were all released from the Central State Reserve.

6. Operations

The FFS receive daily satellite information from NOAA satellites. This allows some level of monitoring the situation across a wide area. In addition, lightening-strike monitoring equipment is used to check on the potential of natural fire starting.

As of 9 October, 1141 personnel, 241 items of heavy machinery, 2 helicopters and 2 aircraft were employed full-time on fire fighting.

During the height of the emergency, Carbon Monoxide levels were monitored in major towns and free oxygen supplies provided in medical centres and hospitals.

Priorities for protection include settlement, strategic installations, high-value timer and recreational areas.

7. Constraints

The personnel dealing with the emergency appear to be dedicated, well trained, highly experienced professionals who know exactly how to cope with forest fires of enormous proportions. They are attempting to do their job in appalling conditions of deprivation.

All official sources have consistently identified resourcing issues as being at the heart of the problem. This is the defining difference with other similar fires in the past. Although conditions for fires have been reported as being the worst for 25 years, in the past the authorities were able to respond effectively to deal with the fires. For example, FFS officials reported that in 1988 they had four times as many resources at their disposal and lost about 300,000 ha in very similar conditions. In 1998, some 2 million ha have been lost.

The crux of the problem appears to be the current inability to carry out effective early-warning and initial response surveillance patrols that could detect fires when they were still small enough to be dealt with by limited means. As a result of the patrols being cut, fires have been able to grow much larger before they could be detected. For example, the Far East Forest Protection Air Base in Khabarovsk operated 60 AN-24 aircraft in 1988, this year only 8 are serviceable and able to be fuelled. In 1988, up to three patrols a day were possible; this year once a week was often all that could be afforded. No aerial surveillance was possible at all in the North forestry district.

This aerial surveillance is seen as being extremely important; the large areas involved, the remoteness of the sites and the fact that only some 20% of the territory can be accessed by road means that aerial support is vital. In some ways, it appears that the Aerial Fire fighters have suffered more than most; their service is obviously expensive and reliant on high quality, serviceable equipment. In addition, they are so specialised that they have few opportunities for supplementing their income whereas the FFS Forest Management Division could partially supplement their income with actual timber production and sale.

Satellite monitoring equipment is available and the FFS have access to the NOAA satellite data. However, whilst this is useful for monitoring broad-scale distribution of fires, it cannot help in early warning and detecting small fires because the pixel size is reported to be some 120 ha, whereas a resolution of 1 ha would be needed for useful preventative work. Therefore, it is perceived that aerial surveillance capacity is still required.

Because the early-warning preventative capacity has been so badly affected, the emphasis has shifted to response activities. However, the resources available to accomplish this are also inadequate. e.g. in 1988 some 500 heavy bulldozers were available of use; in 1998 only 150 were available. Also trying to mobilise urban-based fire brigades to operate in forest areas was difficult because urban fire trucks are not built to operate in very rough mountainous terrain.

Officials also report that, in the past, it was possible to redistribute manpower between territories to enable a flexible response. In 1988 some 850 fire-fighters were supplemented by 750 support fire-fighters from other areas. This year only 240 trained fire-fighters were available and only 180 were able to be afforded from other areas. The authorities in Khabarovsk could have received more outside staff, but could no afford to feed and clothe them.

Therefore, with both early-warning and response capacities curtailed, it is inevitable that emergencies will get more dangerous, more expensive and more damaging to the environment, the economy and human health.

In addition, the equipment available has been reported as being insufficient in number, not adequately maintained and with fuel costs relatively high and very expensive to operate. This covers aircraft, ground equipment (such as bulldozers) and command equipment (such as telecommunications). There is also a shortage of food and clothing for fire-fighters, and with winter approaching there will also be shortages of tents of sleeping-bags for teams operating in difficult field conditions.

The basic cause for these problems appears to be one of debt; officials explained that in normal years 50% of all resources were received from Federal sources before the start of the fire season. In the past, by the time the fire season started around 5th April, all preparations were complete. In 1998, the Far East Forest Protection Air Base in Khabarovsk began the year carrying a debt of 10 million roubles (USD 600,000) from 1997. They reportedly only received the 1998 budget in June, too late to prepare adequately. Consequently, there is now a very large gap of some 30 million roubles (USD 2 million) between expenditure and available budget.


8. International Resources Arrived On-Site

The UNDAC team arrived in the territory to carry out an assessment mission from 6-9 October.

The US Department of Agriculture Forestry Service advisors are involved in longer-term forest management projects in the krai, including fire-fighting. Although not directly involved in current operations, they have been working on capacity-building projects. The Vice-Governor of Khabarovsk reports that he will be meeting with officials in Moscow in the week beginning 12 October to try to get some additional support from them.

The Vice-Governor of Khabarovsk also reported that the area has been included in a World Bank project for sustainable forest management which will alow World Bank credit. The project was included in the World Bank project for 1998, but the economic crisis in Russia has delayed implementation. It is hoped that the credit will be available later this year. The krai administration is working to amend the terms of the project to reflect the changing demands made by the recent fire emergency.

EMERCOM officials will apparently be visiting China in October to try building up co-operation in the field of fire-fighting and emergency response. At the moment there is information-sharing between the two countries and an Agreement exists for fire-fighting co-operation on 20km of the border region.


9. Priority Relief Needs

Local authorities indicated that the need for cash assistance to pay debts from fire-fighting this year. Capacity-building assistance to fight fires that remain and to replenish and repair equipment and provide prevention and preparedness capacities for future years. Restoration and monitoring assistance for biodiversity management.

Without being able to pay existing debts, there is little chance that the krai will be able to respond adequately to any further emergencies that might occur. FFS officials identify the following equipment priorities;

  • Bulldozers
  • Aircraft or spare parts for repair
  • Telecommunications
  • Access to high resolution satellite data and analysis
  • Food
  • Fuel
  • Spare parts for equipment
  • Tents, Sleeping bags
  • Medicine for field personnel

In addition, there is an urgent need to support biodiversity impact assessments to identify the actual implications of the disaster and provide recommendations to ameliorate the worst of the impacts to habitat and species such as the Amur Tiger.

Health monitoring is also at a low level and authorities have indicated the need to provide air quality monitoring equipment that can help extend health surveillance programmes.


10. Logistics and Distribution System

Khabarovsk has an international airport that can cope with all commercial aircraft. There is a road network to all main centres of population. However, some 80% of the country is only accessible by helicopter. Khabarovsk is linked to the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the area is served by commercial seaports at Vanino and Nikolayevsk on the coast and the Amur river port of Khabarovsk.


The UNDAC team arrived Moscow on 9 October. It will be working on drafting an initial report over the next few days and having wrap-up meetings with EMERCOM, State Committee on Environment, FFS and IUCN before returning to Geneva on 14 October 1998.

11. Donors wishing to channel their contributions through OCHA should transfer funds to OCHA Account No. Co.590.160.1 at the UBS (former Swiss Bank Corporation), Case Postale 2770, CH-1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland, with reference: Russian Federation-Forest Fires.

12. For coordination purposes, donors are kindly requested to inform OCHA Geneva as indicated below, of relief missions/pledges/contributions and their corresponding values by item.

Telephone Number: +41-22-917-1234
In case of Emergency only: +41-22-917-2010
Desk Officer: Mr. S. Piazzi, Direct Tel. + 41-22-917-3518
Telex: 414242 OCHA CH
Fax: +41-22-917-0023
Press to contact: Ms. E. Ponomareva, Tel.+41-22-917-2336



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