Mongolia's forests burning: are they good or are they bad?

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Last weekend a small group of us decided to drive the 8 hours or so to the Khonin Nuga (pronounced Honing Nuk) research station, northwest of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We had a standing invitation to visit the site for years from Professor Michael Mühlenberg of Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany, and Professor R. Samiya of National University, Ulaanbaatar – who together run the station. The route took us through the town of Zuun Kharaa, the vodka-producing capital of Mongolia, and off towards the dark-green forested mountains of the western Khentii.  We saw Mongolia’s largest bird, the Black Vulture, and also the respected and graceful Demoiselle Cranes picking up grasshoppers among the wind-blown solid waste around the town. We were going to spend the night in the research station, discuss with Prof. Mühlenberg the possibility of using the site as a training center within the forest landscapes project we are preparing, and find time to explore the taiga forest and steppe by horse. And then we were going to do the bumpy ride home again.

Instead, we found ourselves facing a major forest fire. (Continue reading after the jump)

The smoke was thick and the strong winds were whipping it into swirling tornado-like clouds. As each new stand of trees caught fire, there was a whoosh and the trunks were outlined in a flaming golden aura. Some of the trees exploded and we heard others crashing to the ground. There was a low growling noise as the fire advanced towards us.

Think of fire as a massive herbivorous animal, devouring all the organic material within its reach. It can swing from tree to tree or from grass stem to grass stem gorging itself as it progresses, leaving nothing but blackened waste in its wake. It stands to reason that the more ‘food’ it can reach, the more intense will be its feeding frenzy, and conversely that if it cannot move easily and find ‘food’ to eat, then it will grow smaller and eventually expire. Studies of Mongolian tree rings have shown that fires used to be quite frequent, but they were not so severe and rarely large enough to kill many trees, consuming instead the grasses and bushes which grew beneath the trees. Indeed, many of Mongolia’s northern forests are naturally adapted to dealing with these cleansing ‘good’ fires.

Then about 70 years ago, programs of fire suppression were instituted, resulting in fewer, less frequent fires. This allowed the forest to grow more and denser trees, as well as develop a build-up of ‘fuel’ in the form of branches and fallen trees. Tree-damaging pests also started building up. Eventually, the additional growth started causing bigger and more damaging fires from which the forests take much longer to recover. These are the ‘bad’ fires. So, one approach to forest management now is to try to thin out the accessible forests, especially around protected areas as a means of providing a low fire-risk buffer. The thinning can be used for domestic fuel, for biomass boilers, for furniture etc., and in this way return the forests to the more natural ‘historic fire regime’. This is something we hope the new forest landscapes project could help with as an alternative to often expensive and not so effective fire suppression.

Initially we were pretty confident that we could get through the smoke to Khonin Nuga since the station was said to be only 20 minutes away, and then we alternated between suggesting we give it a go, and then taking the more prudent approach and turning around. We turned around.

I’m sure that readers would be pleased to know that as we were driving back to Ulaanbaatar Michael Mühlenberg called us on his satellite phone and reassured us that he and the station were fine. Studying the recovery of the forest after fires is one of the important programs studied at the research station. I guess they now have yet more sites to choose from.


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