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View the documentCase study: Da Xing An Ling Forest Fire Rehabilitation Project

Case study: Da Xing An Ling Forest Fire Rehabilitation Project

Alcira Kreimer, Martha Preece, and Horst Wagner

By any standard, the Da Xing An Ling Forest Fire Rehabilitation Project was an extraordinary accomplishment. The impressive organization of the Da Xing An Ling Forest Corporation made it possible to salvage 12 million cubic meters of timber from a forest devastated by fire, and generate funds for forest regeneration and reconstruction of local infrastructure, among other things. The program significantly changed local attitudes toward fire prevention, by increasing awareness of the need for preventive activities. The disciplined approach of the fire fighters and their vastly improved fire safety records show the effectiveness of this strategy. Only the important work of forest regeneration has been slow because of the region’s difficult climate and a shortage of local expertise. Those efforts must be strengthened, particularly in the crucial areas of seed usage, site preparation, and seed harvesting and handling. But this project is a landmark in efforts to integrate environmental issues into the economic justification for the Bank’s involvement in rehabilitation programs.

Forest fires are often viewed as unavoidable quirks of nature and environmental degradation as the result of willful human tampering with natural environments (see box on fire management). Even the Bank distinguishes between natural disasters and environmental degradation as if the two were unrelated. But in recent years more preventive measures are being considered so future development efforts will not fall victim to catastrophe.

The underlying causes of a natural crisis can often be traced - at least in part - to tampering with the natural environment. One natural disaster often leads to another. Fires spreading freely through forests may deplete soil nutrients, rapid runoff from a burned area can contribute to flooding, and the erosion of exposed soil can trigger landslides (National Academy of Sciences 1987). Their origin may be linked to natural causes, as in China, or to human activities. In Brazil, colonization projects put settlers at more of a disadvantage than other producers because credits, agricultural input prices, and major markets were far beyond the reach of small producers. Low agricultural productivity, together with population pressure and poverty, forced farmers to fell and bum forests (Mahar 1989). Moreover, the increasing development and exploitation of natural resources is forcing a shift from extensive to intensive land use. The result is to shorten the fallow period, thus reducing the organic matter in soil and soil’s capacity to hold water. But fire also alters ecosystems and increases the chance of erosion and water runoff, thereby exacerbating a region’s vulnerability to further natural hazards. The fact that a disaster occurs “naturally” does not lessen its impact on environmental systems. Nor does it mean that attempts should not be made to assess the effects of disasters and protect the natural habitat from their potential damage.

The risk of wildfires becoming uncontrollable disasters has increased as environmental degradation accelerates, widening the path of disaster-proneness. After the devastating consequences of the Da Xing An Ling forest fire, the government of China is paying close attention to natural disaster reduction initiatives, focusing on activities to protect the natural environment. With Bank support (a $56.9 million loan), the country launched the largest salvage operation in the world and set up a fire protection system to prevent and mitigate wildfires. The Da Xing An Ling project became the Bank’s first effort at forest fire rehabilitation.

The vulnerability of China’s forests

Only 12 percent of China’s 9.5 million square kilometers of land area are under cultivation. Forestry, which employs 2.2 million people, accounts for less than 5 percent of the gross value of agricultural output. An estimated 261 million hectares, or almost 28 percent of China’s total land surface, is suitable for forest growth, but forest cover came to only 116 million hectares in 1985. Naturally regenerated forests cover about 110 million hectares; of these, 81 million hectares are timber forests, 10 million protection forests, 11 million farm forests, 3 million bamboo, 4 million fuel forests, and 1 million special-use forests. The other 6 million hectares are man-made forests. In 1984, timber production grew to almost 300 million cubic meters (compared with 95 million cubic meters in Japan and 317 million cubic meters in the United States). Forest products are the principal source of household fuelwood and housing construction materials in China. The country is undertaking a massive afforestation and reforestation effort, but it also faces an unprecedented demand for wood products. This, coupled with an accelerating decline in the supply of roundwood, has forced the government to increase imports of quality timber and to focus on improving forestry management and protection. China’s objective is to restore forest coverage to 20 percent of the total land area by the year 2000. Timber and fuelwood use is an estimated 300 million cubic meters a year; only slightly more than 50 million were logged for commercial use.

Historically, the country has regularly lost 40 percent of its annual timber production to fires. Between 1966 and 1986, fire destroyed an average 130,000 hectares of forests annually in the DXAL area, exacerbating the country’s wood shortage and intensifying the pressure on remaining forests.

The Da Xing An Ling area, in the far northern portion of Heilongjiang Province and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, is China’s most important timber producer. It covers 22.7 million hectares, of which 13.5 million hectares are closed forest stands. The dominant species are larch (70 percent of the standing volume), white birch (20 percent), scotch pine (7 percent), and spruce, poplar, and oak (3 percent).

In May 1987, one of the biggest wildfires on record occurred in China. The Da Xing An Ling fire lasted 28 days, blackened 1,330,000 hectares, and devastated 870,000 hectares of timber forest in the northern part of the country. It killed 193 people, left 56,000 homeless, and destroyed much of the region’s infrastructure, including railroad tracks, power lines, offices, and industries. “The city of Xilingji was wiped out in half an hour since gale force winds fanned the flames. The victims were mostly elderly and sick people, unable to escape quickly enough. Although the government concentrated more than 40,000 firefighters in the area, it took a month before the blaze was extinguished, with the help of the first spring rains” (Lindzen 1990). Nearly 40 million cubic meters were affected by the fire. Although the trees died, the wood was still intact and could be salvaged.

Fire has occurred often in the Da Xing An Ling forest region, where recurrent fires are part of the natural growth cycle. The area is dry and windy in the spring, with rainfall of only 200 millimeters in the winter, evaporation of 170 millimeters from March to May, and occasional gale-force winds from mid-April to mid-May. Nearly 100 forest fires a year are triggered by lightning and burn an average total of 150,000 hectares. The forest damage rate is 1.7 percent. Usually forest fires are not detected until they have spread over more than 60 hectares, and are not controlled until they reach an average 4,000 hectares. Use of these forests makes it necessary to break the natural cycle of recurrent forest fires. Development of this forest area started 22 years ago, but investments in fire protection in that period were not adequate to reduce average fire loss.

Some thoughts on fire management

Martha Preece

Environmental degradation may not trigger natural disasters, but it can make an area more hazard-prone. Forest environments are particularly susceptible to wildfires, quick-onset disasters that may be set off by a volcano, lightning, or human carelessness. The risk of a naturally ignited fire turning into catastrophe is increasingly seen as a function of the degradation of the forest habitat. Crises caused by fires are compounded by such long-standing problems as rural poverty, technological constraints, and inefficient tenure patterns and use of land. Mounting pressure on scarce land and forest resources has led to rapid and massive deforestation. Degradation of the environment sets the stage for sedimentation of surrounding riverbeds, major watershed problems, floods, landslides, acute water shortages in dry periods, and the irreversible loss of biological diversity.

Uncontrolled fires have contributed heavily to the depletion and exhaustion of natural forests. Like land clearing, they set in motion events that may result in permanent losses in biodiversity, soil fertility, and sustainable forest-based production. They usually produce large tracts of eroded and weed-infested lands, altering ecosystems and increasing vulnerability to natural hazards. Wildfires destroy timber and forage, disrupt animal habitats, deplete soil nutrients, and diminish an area’s tourist (scenic) value. Rapid runoff from a burned-over area can lead to flooding, and erosion of exposed soil can trigger landslides.

In the last 20 years environmentalists have been debating the merits of the controversial “let-it-burn” approach to forest management. The idea behind it is that blazes actually benefit the natural environment by both clearing under-brush that blocks sunlight from seedlings and preventing uncontrolled conflagrations. According to the U.S. Park Service, “the old suppress-all-fires” system caused more problems than it solved. The 1990 blaze at Yosemite spread quickly not only because of drought but also because decades’ worth of excess brush had accumulated during the years before controlled burning began (Dorfman and Wyss 1990).

Peters and Neuenschwander (1988) acknowledge the many benefits of slash-and-burn techniques and their near indispensability as a tool for shifting cultivation. But they emphasize how the exploitation of tropical forests has threatened the sustainability of traditional agricultural practices. “Land scarcity, brought about by population pressure and the increasing development and exploitation of natural resources, is forcing a change from extensive to intensive land use,” they write. When less land is available for subsistence cultivation, the only economical way to produce the same yields of traditional crops is to reduce the fallow period. The low value of crops usually does not justify the use of fertilizers, so the alternative for small farmers in developing countries is to exploit marginal lands and primary forests. The low cost of the slash-and-burn technique makes it the only economically feasible way for smallholder producers to clear land. But the practice has become an ecological, sociological, and economic concern because its uncontrolled use has caused severe environmental degradation. Accidental or escape fires can become catastrophes with devastating consequences. Unrestricted shifting cultivation and indiscriminate use of fire have become a major threat to forests. Therefore, fire prevention programs must address the issue of agricultural practices, poverty, and landlessness

The Da Xing An Ling fire developed from three major fires. Of the 40 million cubic meters destroyed and damaged, 12 million cubic meters were high-quality larch and pine with a railside value of at least US$1 billion. A quick salvage operation was necessary because insects and fungi spread rapidly in areas affected by fire. Only six months after the fire, bark fell off half of the dead trees, and 30 different insects were found in about 12 percent of them. The salvage operation was to be completed within two to three years and, indeed, by April 1990 the DXAL Forest Corporation had salvaged the planned 12 million cubic meters. Not all of the wood could be transported out of the region because of bottlenecks in rail transport; about 4 million cubic meters were stored and preserved to be transported in 1991.

After the devastating DXAL wildfire, the Ministry of Forestry was determined to restore the productive capacity of the forest industry and prevent any more uncontrolled fires. Besides rebuilding the houses and all the destroyed infrastructure in the area in 1989, the government was committed to developing a comprehensive fire prevention and protection system. Authorities have substantially revamped the fire prevention and control capability and have established an effective ground protection system combined with early warning detection by air surveillance and satellite. They have also built up firefighting capability by combining ground brigades, all-terrain vehicle crews, and helicopter fire-suppression systems.

Bank strategy for DXAL fire protection

In 1988 the Bank approved a credit for $56.9 million, financing 11 percent of a project that cost US$517 million, to “launch the largest salvage operation in the world and set up a space age fire protection system in a forest area the size of Great Britain” (Wagner 1988). The Bank’s strategy included:

· Fire prevention - building up a multilevel prevention system that combines ground patrols, fire towers, and early aerial and satellite fire detection systems.

· Fire suppression - by mechanized fire brigades on the ground and aerial fire suppression by helicopters carrying fire retardant chemicals and firefighting brigades.

· An emergency salvage operation - to minimize economic losses by felling, logging, and transporting burnt but usable timber before it decayed or became infested with insects.

· Regeneration of the forest cover mainly through seeding, natural vegetation, and - to a lesser extent - plantation.

The regeneration program still needs improvement. The management, equipment, and proper use of seed harvesting and handling technology must be reviewed to improve seed quality, reduce costs, and accelerate regeneration. The regeneration of larch, scotch pine, and birch has been emphasized. Larch is remarkably adapted to these cataclysmic sites. Its thick bark protects it from severe burning, and its coning and seed distribution patterns are ideally suited to the vagaries of the climate. Scotch pine complements larch, taking over certain ecological niches unsuited to it, and birch has the capacity to sprout from tree stumps, so it establishes a canopy quickly, creating the conditions needed to reestablish larch. Further technical assistance will be needed to speed up the regeneration process. The project has emphasized the development of nurseries to raise stock for hand planting. But the regeneration of indigenous species increases the potential for infestations of pests and disease. Such extensive reforestation calls for adaptation of the methods developed for the natural forest. A scheme to encourage villagers to protect birds should reduce insect infestation, and restocking natural predators should reduce the serious rodent damage experienced in some places.

An extraordinary achievement

In the DXAL fire, a natural crisis became a disaster for lack of a reliable prevention and disaster preparedness program. Implementation of the aerial and satellite fire detection and firefighting measures has significantly reduced the effects of fires. In 1989, the DXAL forest area had the lowest incidence of fires in its history. The loss of forests to fire dropped from an annual average of 130,000 hectares to fewer than 60 hectares. (The appraisal target was 30,000 hectares.) Fire management has been improved by a fire protection system that combines aerial and satellite surveillance with fire tower and ground patrol observation. About 1,500 kilometers of fire breaks were opened up and 135 lookout towers were set up to improve the early discovery and suppression of fire. Firefighting capabilities in both Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia were improved by establishing a responsibility system, expanding roads to inaccessible areas, and improving the organization, mobilization, training, and equipment of the fire brigades. In the spring of 1990, only 14 fire alarms were reported - eight times fewer than in 1988, which had been the best year in fire prevention. The incidence of fires decreased 37 percent. But the danger of fire remains, as the forest corporations in Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia have not yet reached their full capability for handling large fires in inaccessible areas.

The Da Xing An Ling Forest Fire Rehabilitation Project is a remarkable achievement in terms of timber salvaging and improving fire management. It made national and regional political leaders and government decisionmakers focus on the need for a priority salvage operation and rehabilitation program. It mobilized widespread support for tree planting, seedling protection, and the regeneration of highly fire-resistant indigenous species. The program succeeded because of the government’s commitment to it, a commitment that made massive mobilization possible. The project strongly emphasized the need for proven regeneration techniques, increasing the rate of industrial plantation, accelerating research on regeneration, harvesting and using timber resources more efficiently, and developing effective fire prevention capabilities.