Fire takes toll on a fragile land

Mongolia: A quarter of its forests destroyed, 19 dead, hundreds homeless as spring blazes rage

It happens every year. Human carelessness in the vast, isolated Mongolian steppe is a recurring tragedy, bringing death and destruction as flames sweep across the plains.

Every spring, hunters and herdsmen light small fires as they camp in the windswept countryside or beside the huge coniferous forests that lie in the north-west of Mongolia. And every spring, some of these fires are left alight. Unattended, they rise, rapidly consuming the dry grass or trees, until they are blazing out of control.

Eventually, enough people are mobilised to beat down the flames, using the only tools they have had for centuries - clothes tied to sticks, brooms and water from rivers or wells. Every year people are injured as they fight or flee these fires.

Urban Mongolians shrug off the blazes. They happen every year. The people in the countryside are careless. But this scarcely populated country (2.3 million at the last count) has been stunned by the ferocity of this year's fires.

Nearly 300 have been recorded this year and about 25 are still burning. A quarter of Mongolia's forests have been burnt to the ground. At least 19 people have lost their lives, including a 16-year-old firefighter. Generations of livestock have been wiped out, or burnt so badly they have had to be destroyed. Hundreds of families are homeless, their traditional round- tent dwellings quickly consumed in the fires.

Some families have resorted to sleeping in the open, where, even in May temperatures can drop to -10 degrees at night.

It is the sheer size of Mongolia that has allowed these fires to rage. It is the size of Western Europe. Outside the big cities, communication is unsophisticated and roads are bad.

The fires damaged thousands of communication line posts this year. Reports of fires were delayed, as whole communities live without telephones. At times, all people could do was watch their land go up in smoke.

The area close to the capital, Ulan Bator, in central Mongolia, has also been badly damaged. Terelj nature reserve lies only 45km north-east of Ulan Bator. It is a popular haunt for tourists and the 900 or so foreigners who live in the capital.

The fire at Terelj was small compared to many which have been burning across the country since February. It spanned roughly 16 by 10km (9 miles by 6 ). But locals, including children, fought the blaze unassisted for over a month, before 500 volunteers were drafted in from the nearby city of Nailah.

They fought the blaze with sacks and water from the nearby river. "Weather- modification pellets", made from dried carbon dioxide, were fired from an old Russian cannon into the low-lying cloud. This was to induce the snow which had finally been forecast. Forty-eight hours later snow had fallen, and the fire had been extinguished.

Although we arrived at Terelj towards the end of the firefighting operation, the ground was still smouldering, as though ready to reignite, as has happened at hundreds of sites across the country. Fires apparently extinguished have fed on the high winds and parched yellow grass and once again blazed out of control.

Thousands of Mongolians have spent weeks sleeping close to the blazes, breathing in smoke that prevents them from seeing 10ft in front of them. Winds have changed direction so rapidly and with such fury, that these inexperienced volunteers, who include prisoners released from a jail, have fled from the blaze, unable to save anything. At least one person died on horseback, trying to gallop beyond the flames.

The brief television news reports cannot convey people's shock at losing their homes and livelihoods.

Towards the end of April, the world was finally alerted to the tragedy. Trucks loaded with aid are lurching across the Mongolian steppe. Tents, fire-proof clothing and food are gradually reaching remoter corners of the country. Local relief operations have moved a staggering 250,000 livestock from charred, ruined land, to fertile pastures.

Recent estimates by the government admit environment damage caused directly by the fires will cost $2bn (pounds 1.3bn).Funds are needed to implement a warning system in rural areas to prevent the tragedy from recurring. If no preparation is made for next year, the spring of 1997 may not bode well for this fragile land.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue