After widespread forest fires in Indonesia and Brazil in 2019, and the recent catastrophic summer fires in Australia, it is timely to explore the context behind these extraordinary fire events as well as consider the potential future impact in a changing climate.

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Australia experienced its driest and hottest year on record in 2019, resulting in over 18 million hectares burnt, more than 2,500 homes destroyed, and an estimated one billion animals killed. Indonesia also had significantly lower rainfall levels during its annual July-to-September dry season. Riau, a province in central Sumatra, received only 47% of its long-term average rainfall during this period, resulting in very difficult fire conditions in 2019. The Indonesian government, which has focused on the enforcement of fire-related regulations since 2015 when more than 2 million hectares were burnt, reported 857,756 hectares of burnt land across Indonesia last year, generating smoke haze that blanketed the wider region. Following three relatively fire-free years between 2016 and 2018, the return of fire in 2019 once again demonstrated the complexity of the issue.

The catastrophic fires experienced in both countries in 2019 was almost certainly exacerbated by a dry
phase Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) – one of the strongest on record – affecting rainfall in both Indonesia
and Australia. This unusually strong dry, or positive, phase was associated with cooler than normal
waters in the eastern Indian Ocean, west of the Indonesian archipelago, resulting in significantly drier
conditions, higher fire dangers and a delay to the start of the annual wet season across the region.

This is of real concern because long-term trends indicate that the IOD dry phase is likely to become
more common and indeed more intense. The increasing risks associated with these regional climatic
phenomena and the uncertainty related to climate change means that it is critically important to
understand the impacts of forest and land fires as well as the social and environmental factors
underlying them.

A Wicked Problem

The impact of fires is the result of a range of complex issues that has often been described by
researchers as a ‘Wicked Problem’ because of the incomplete or contradictory knowledge about the
causes of fire, the range of valid but often competing perspectives, and the interconnected nature of the issues and complexities associated with forest fire.

There are no easy answers and it requires careful analysis to ensure that the solutions developed are
addressing the root of the problem. It is also important to note that this is not about allocating blame but understanding the complexity of each landscape in its own social, economic and environmental context.

In Australia, a naturally fire prone environment, a significant percentage of the area burnt is the result of lightning starting fires in inaccessible areas following extended dry periods. Issues related to development along an urban/forest interface, fuel management, as well as the effects of climate change, are all part of an ongoing debate into the causes and impacts of wildfire. What is clear is that in Australia deliberate ignitions have a limited role in fire causation overall.

Indonesia’s forests, like tropical forests in the Amazon, appear to have limited natural sources of fire.
Despite annual dry seasons the chances of large-scale devastating fires starting from natural causes are low. Most fires in these tropical regions are deliberately lit as a cheap and effective means to clear land for agricultural use. A lack of access to appropriate tools, machinery, technology, limited capital and a poor understanding of consequence mean people will use fire because it is the most cost effective tool available.

The Amazon lost around 900,000 hectares of forest to deliberate land clearing fires in 2019 according to most sources. Forest fires associated with expanded agricultural activities, common in both the Amazon and Indonesia, demonstrate how openings in an intact forest canopy can have significant micro-climate affects. Disturbances, like deforestation, can lead to increased sunlight and air movement which result in higher local temperatures, lower relative humidity and increased drying of the forest vegetation. This not only changes the local forest ecology but increases fine fuel drying, resulting in a higher risk of fire. While isolated tree fall is a natural ecological process, large scale unmanaged forest clearing may be a significant factor in increasing forest fire danger. Micro-climate, forest edge effects will occur in any forest opening but the impact in tropical forests like the Amazon and Indonesia may be more significant, as it can lead to an increased number and intensity of forest fires.

Indonesia - not a natural fire-prone environment

The common theme in all these fire situations is that while starting small, if they are not managed, fires can get out of control. The result is fire events that may burn large areas well beyond the original ignition point with a range of flow on impacts. In Indonesia smoke haze from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan in 2019 was recorded at dangerous levels across the region. High-humidity, common in the equatorial tropics, means fuels are rarely dry and as a result even small fires can produce enormous volumes of thick, acrid smoke haze that can have a significant impact on human health.

Smoke haze has well recorded impacts on humans, from a mild sore throat, runny nose and red eyes to more acute issues like asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and cardiovascular outcomes. Less well understood are the long term implications of prolonged exposure to smoke haze that may include premature death related to heart attacks and strokes and impacts on child growth and development. Children, pregnant woman, the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions are especially vulnerable but data is showing that the issue of smoke haze may have far broader and longer term impacts.

One of the results of the abundant precipitation and high humidity experienced in tropical forests is that it provides a natural limit to the frequency and intensity of forest fires. With rainfall exceeding 2,500 mm a year and dry periods generally less than 3 months fire behavior in Indonesia and the Amazon rarely, if ever, reaches the scale, speed and intensity of the bush fires in Australia with its extreme heat, extended dry seasons and extraordinarily low humidity. In Indonesia, like other tropical regions, fires tend to be cooler and spread more slowly. That said, there is a marked lack of robust scientific literature on fire science in Indonesia and other tropical forests.

However, tropical forests, including peat swamp forests, have not evolved or adapted to a fire ecology
and even low-intensity fires can kill trees and destroy peatland. Native forests in Australia, which are
regularly exposed to wildfires have evolved adaptive features like epicormic buds on the tree's branches and trunk which sprout when triggered by stress, such as wildfire, allowing the tree to survive after even the most extreme fire events. Tropical forests are less likely to recover quickly from forest fires making them more vulnerable to fire events in future dry seasons. Trees killed by the heat are often on the edge of intact forest areas which are subject to micro-climates that are drier, hotter and windier with increased exposure to pests and disease. This positive feedback loop means these areas are at higher risk of future disturbance factors like deliberately lit fires and encroachment. Unfortunately, while the immediate environmental damage from fires in tropical contexts may be catastrophic, the longer term impact on primary forests due to a greater frequency and intensity of fire events is an area of ongoing research.

No easy solutions

There are no easy answers or copy-and-paste solutions to the ‘wicked’ challenge posed by wildfires. For that reason, understanding the context of fire occurrence is important. Data indicates that forest fires in Indonesia are not restricted only to peatlands nor are they mainly occurring on plantations or company concessions. Early analysis from the Indonesian fires in 2019 shows that over 75% of the burnt area was idle or abandoned land that had been subject to burning in previous years. Managed landscapes like large-scale concessions, in contrast, are far more likely to be fire-free.

Operational experience in Riau has shown that the overall fire danger rises quickly with extended
consecutive days without rain. There is a clear correlation between lower rainfall and fire ignitions and a strong relationship between more than seven days without rain and increased fire starts and intensity. This is because when fine fuels like leaves, twigs and grass are dry they are easier to light, burn hotter and burn more area in less time. They are also more difficult to control and often cause damage to existing crops and infrastructure.

While there is limited publicly available data on fire in tropical forest areas, operational experience
shows that fires are more likely in areas where there is new development, particularly where there is
land-use change associated with new agriculture. A Fire Risk Mapping initiative across Riau Province,
Indonesia, using inputs related to human access and recorded encroachment, has predicted fire
ignitions with up to 85% accuracy (based on APRIL internal data). But it is important to remember that while understanding causation is critical, effective solutions cannot be about blame. Long-term solutions are only likely to be effective when they address the root cause rather than continuing to focus on the symptoms.

There are certainly a number of actions individuals, companies and governments can take to understand and address the core issues and resolve some of the complexity. This is especially the case in tropical forest regions because, as noted above, fires are predominantly started by people typically involved in preparing land for agricultural activity.. Fire prevention, one element in a broader fire management strategy which also includes preparation and suppression, can be a particularly effective intervention. Initiatives like the Fire Free Village Program demonstrate that communities and companies can work together to develop viable and sustainable fire prevention programs by identifying and addressing the root causes of burning in a respectful and collaborative way.

The Fire Free Village Program was developed in 2014 as a partnership between APRIL, a forestry
company operating in Riau, Sumatra and local communities to better understand and engage with the
fire and smoke haze issues that were severely impacting the Region. A comprehensive analysis in
collaboration with communities identified a range of solutions directly addressing the agreed root
causes. These included infrastructure incentives for no fires, assistance with agriculture preparation
without fire, training in sustainable agriculture practices as well as community advocacy and awareness. In 2015, one of the worst fire seasons in Indonesia’s history, participating ‘fire-free’ communities reduced burnt area by over 90% against previous years, empowering those people most affected by the consequences of unmanaged fires.

There remains a lot more work to do as the trend for fire seasons to be longer and more extreme continues. In the immediate term this includes helping local communities understand the significant impacts of smoke haze on their health and long term well-being. It also means facilitating appropriate sustainable solutions that are available as an alternative to burning in consultation with those affected by these fire events. An increased interest in green funds and ‘fire free’ supply chains are examples where stakeholders can support communities to directly reduce their reliance on unmanaged fires as a land management tool and reduce the resulting impacts of smoke haze.

There is also a need for the appropriate institutional frameworks to assist companies and communities to manage these increasingly important issues. The Pelalawan District Fire Klaster (or cluster) pilot is one example where stakeholders are provided with a platform to come together to discuss, plan and coordinate responses at the local level. This Klaster approach follows successful models from other fire prone parts of the world and recognizes that fire is a shared responsibility. As a result, a range of local stakeholders collaborate to develop a coordinated fire management response that is specific to local challenges.

Equally, industry platforms like the Indonesian based Fire Free Alliance has allowed parties to share
information on best practices, effective interventions and techniques in a trusted and open way.
Understanding processes that have been successfully implemented in other community or landscape
contexts is a critical part of the evolution of these platforms and important to scaling solutions.
Experience shows that when parties can see practical in-field examples the conversation quickly moves
beyond who is at fault and into constructive conversations about what has worked in preventing fires.

Governments have a leading role to play in fire prevention. In Indonesia the Central Government
responded strongly to the catastrophic fires of 2015 with new regulations, stronger enforcement and by increasing pressure on local government agencies to meet their responsibilities. Operational evidence since 2015 from Indonesia shows that increased community awareness and government enforcement of fire management regulations has played a key role in raising the profile of fires as critical social and environmental issue. The result of this effort has seen a significant decrease in the number of fires and burnt area overall since 2015. Ensuring that enforcement agencies have the appropriate resources to take effective and consistent action remains an important priority for government.

Fires do not respect boundaries or lines on a map, so increasing collaboration between all stakeholders, including government, business and communities and embracing a shared responsibility is essential to building an effective response to forest and land fires. Operational fire experience in Riau, Sumatra, demonstrates that with government support, the immediate focus needs to be on effective community level fire prevention initiatives while maintaining the operational capability to detect and respond to fires at a district level. Recognizing that climate change is likely to lead to drier conditions and longer dry seasons this focus needs to be supported by increased scientific research into fire science and management as well as an open and respectful dialogue between all stakeholders to identify root causes and to assist those most in need if this wicked problem is to be finally addressed.

April, 2020
Craig R Tribolet
Sustainability Operations Manager

Follow Us

The Tropical Forest Alliance is a global public-private partnership in which partners take voluntary
actions, individually and in combination, to reduce tropical deforestation. Follow us below.