Extraordinary weather conditions put North China on high alert for forest fire

By Shan Jie in Hulun Buir Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/6 19:00:40


Firefighters put out a fire at Haosengou National Forest Park, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on May 1. Photo: IC

Extraordinary weather conditions have brought great challenges in fire prevention to the people working in the Greater Khingan forests in North China this spring

The forestry bureau in Greater Khingan, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region has dispatched around 5,000 firefighters to the forests

Living and working in difficult circumstances, the employees are proud to guard the forest

In Wuerqihan, fire is a constant menace.

Recently, forestry department employees have rarely seen their colleagues, as most of them are garrisoned in the mountains, working to make sure the forest is safe from potential fire. Some of them have to stay in the mountains for three months. 

The fire prevention period takes place every season except winter here. Wuerqihan is a forestry bureau in the Greater Khingan, home to 4,819 square kilometers of forest. Forestry bureau in Greater Khingan, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region covers 19 branch bureaus, and Wuerqihan is one of them.

This spring, people working in the forests of Greater Khingan are more nervous than usual, as they are facing harsher conditions for preventing fire.

Extraordinary weather, including higher temperatures and less rainfall, has brought great challenges to the people guarding the forests. At the same time, the firefighting work is facing problems such as aging personnel.

The forestry management department in Inner Mongolia has vowed to face its challenges head-on.

Extreme conditions

"We are affected by El Niño this year," Zhu Gang, captain of the Wuerqihan forest firefighter team, told the Global Times. "Every 10 years, we meet a tough year in fire prevention."

There was up to 85.6 percent less rainfall than last year, the lowest on record, but temperatures were 2.9 to 6.5 C higher, according to a statement the forestry bureau in Greater Khingan of Inner Mongolia sent to the Global Times in late April. There are 83,700 square kilometers of forest in the Greater Khingan Mountains in Inner Mongolia, covering 78.39 percent of the entire area.

This year, the fire prevention period started on March 5, 10 days earlier than usual.

The situation resembled the "May 6 fire" in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province in 1987, said the statement. The 1987 fire destroyed 17,000 square kilometers of forests in China and Russia, killing 211 people.

Moreover, fire prevention work faces the hardest challenge ever due to a number of adverse factors, such as the large range of forests, excessive amounts of combustible materials in forests and aging firefighters, according to the statement from the forestry bureau in Greater Khingan. 

On April 17, a fire from Russia spread to China and hit Hulun Buir's Old Barag Banner, 170 kilometers from Wuerqihan. Even though the fire was put out after three days, it left the people in the Greater Khingan Mountain forests on edge.

In another incident, 30 people, 27 firefighters and three locals, lost their lives fighting the fire in Muli, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province in early April, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Fire engines get ready at a firefighting drill in Wuerqihan forestry bureau. Photo: Courtesy of the Wuerqihan forestry bureau

Ready for action

Outside Zhu's office in the team's headquarters in Wuerqihan township, a dozen or so fire engines are parked in the yard, waiting for an alarm that could come at any minute.

Backpacks are already packed and on display in storage. Even seasoning that can serve a 100-man team for three days have been distributed into bottles.

Among the 300 professional firefighters in the Wuerqihan team, 100 are now garrisoned in forests in the mountains, and the remaining 200 are training in headquarters, ready to act at any second.

In addition to those 300, the Wuerqihan bureau has 900 more firefighters in its tree farms. Those who work in the farms plant trees every day, but when the fires come, they turn themselves into firefighters.

In addition to the firefighters, employees and officials at the bureau are requested to stay in the forests. Every department, even those for publicity and research, has a region that it is responsible for.

Some women with young children serve as fire patrols at locations close to the township, and others have to live in mountains for days.

In the whole Greater Khingan region of Inner Mongolia, the local forestry bureau in Greater Khingan has dispatched 4,684 firefighters to stay in forests.

China completely halted commercial logging in natural forests in 2017, according to the state forestry authority. Since then, many employees in the forestry bureaus of Greater Khingan have changed their roles and focused on planting trees and fire prevention.

Employees plant trees at a tree farm in Wuerqihan forest bureau in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. They are equipped with firefighting devices. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

Life in forest

Local people in Wuerqihan are confident about their knowledge in dealing with mountain fires, as it has been gained at a high price.

Even though firefighter Zhang Jun, 48, has a house just a few kilometers away, he and other members are usually not allowed to leave the headquarters.

When garrisoned in forests, life is more difficult. There were no cell phone signals and electricity was also very limited until this year.

"It is very boring up in the forest. We just look at each other, play poker and sleep very early," Zhang said. "I often miss my family and my children."

Located in northern China, the temperature in Wuerqihan reaches -40 C in winter. Even in April,  the temperature could be as low as 0 C at night.

In order to prevent fire, the firefighters are not allowed to use heating. The cabins they live in are often colder than the outside.

"Sometimes we experience four seasons in one day," Zhang said. 

When they are called to fight the fires, the team members might not sleep for days.

"Once I worked three days in a row and was so exhausted that I fell asleep beside the fire area. Suddenly I was woken up by burning. My hair and eyebrows were all burned," Zhang said.

The firefighters often feel guilty for not taking care of their families well.

Whenever he is dispatched to the forest, Zhang prepares food and medicine in advance for his elderly parents, who suffer various illnesses. Zhang's wife and son work in Manzhouli City, 350 kilometers from Wuerqihan.

Among Zhang's teammates, 85 percent of their wives have no job.

As they are constantly away from home, divorce is common among firefighters. "Sometimes I saw them bring their children or dogs to the forests in garrison, because they are divorced and there's no one at home to take care of them," Zhu, the captain said.

Although their job is extremely hard, the firefighters only get a monthly salary of 2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($297-$445.50).

Since 2013, the team has not recruited any new members. The average age of the members is around 50.

"We hate sunny days here," Zhu joked.

"On rainy days, the forests are not likely to catch fire," he said. "It's a psychological problem you get after living in a forest area for so long."

Pride in their work

The forest is the greatest wealth for people living in Greater Khingan.

Even though life in Wuerqihan is far from comfortable, the firefighters and employees of the forestry bureau are proud of what they do.

"More than 95 percent of forest fires are caused by human behavior, such as barbeques, burning grass on wasteland and smoking," Zhu said.

He is happy to see that many people are now having more awareness of fire prevention after their great efforts to promote related knowledge.

Moreover, in recent years, the bureau has imported more advanced equipment to better safeguard the forests. For instance, they have created artificial rainfall and used drones to monitor the fire situation.

The entire forestry bureau in Greater Khingan, Inner Mongolia is expected to receive a fund of 190 million yuan from the central government within the year for aerial fire prevention, communication systems and high-risk area management.

The forestry bureau in Greater Khingan will also get 21.6 million yuan to upgrade barracks and buy new supplies and equipment. An emergency fund of 25 million yuan has been reserved to deal with any fire damage. More than 11 million yuan will be used to build isolated zones and on fire preventing awareness campaign.

The people in Wuerqihan are eagerly awaiting the end of the spring fire prevention season. However, after spring, residents have to face two more in summer and autumn.


Newspaper headline: Constant menace


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