Lessons From 'the Year the Earth Caught Fire'

From space, the world's fourth-most-populous country looked as if it was going to burn to the ground. Satellite images of Indonesia last fall revealed massive clouds of smoke spreading from the tropical rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo to the densely populated urban centers of Malaysia, Singapore, and other countries.

Halfway around the world, the Amazon rain forests also appeared to be burning at an unprecedented rate. And satellite images from Brazil, Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania suggest that human-caused fires are sweeping through tropical forests worldwide.

The World Wildlife Fund is so alarmed that it has declared 1997 "the year the Earth caught fire." Its report released in December called gross mismanagement of human-caused fires "a planetary disaster."

"These are types of forest vegetation that don't normally burn," says the report's author, Nigel Dudley, a consultant for WWF-International based in Gland, Switzerland.

"Healthy rain forests don't catch fire. This year's burning was very serious and will probably turn out to be the worst on record," he says.

Was 1997 really the worst year yet for the world's forests? As serious as the fires were, leading fire ecology experts say that last year's burn probably wasn't any worse than in many other recent years.

"There is no indication at all that 1997 was an extraordinary fire year for Indonesia or the world at large," says fire specialist Johann Goldamer, who studies fires globally for the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Meinz, Germany.

"It's not clear at all that more vegetation burned this year than in past fire years; it's just that this year the smoke fell on the cities, so the [news] media finally took notice," he says.

Hard data won't be available for months, but experts say that last year was probably just another in a series of bad years for tropical forests.

A fast tool for clearing a forest

Forest fires have become an annual phenomenon in Indonesia, as population pressures on crowded islands like Java push people into the interior of Borneo and Sumatra in search of land. Small farmers and big timber companies for years have been clearing tropical forests with the implicit approval of the government. Fire is often the tool of choice because it is cheap, fast, and effective - particularly if used in dry El Nio years.

But poorly managed fires often get out of hand, spreading easily in damaged or drought-stricken rain forests. The result has been major fires across the enormous Indonesian archipelago in 1982, 1983, 1987, 1991, and 1994. More vegetation and tropical forest may have been destroyed in some of these years than in 1997, according to Dr. Goldamer.

Unlike past years, atmospheric conditions brought the smoke from the fires down on major cities, exposing large numbers of people in six countries to health hazards. An estimated 45,000 people in the region fell ill due to the smog, which closed airports and schools. The smoke is also blamed for an airliner crash and the collision of two cargo ships near Indonesia, both resulting in many fatalities.

Fires started by people wishing to clear land for agriculture, timber projects, or tree plantations have increased in quantity and scale over the past two decades due to population pressures and increased demand for timber products. This has caused the loss of vast tracts of tropical forests (see chart).

'Fires are a symptom, not a cause'

"The fires are a symptom, not a cause of deforestation," says Don Henry, director of the WWF's Washington-based Global Forest Program. "We're seeing tropical forests vanishing at an alarming scale due to shortsighted land-use policies. Fire is just one of the means by which forests are being cleared."

From Indonesia to Guatemala, tropical forests are being destroyed at a rapid rate through activities ranging from harvesting mahogany for furniture to creating cattle pastures. The problem, critics say, is that many of these activities are unsustainable: Ranches fail because tropical soils are nutrient-poor and prone to erosion; some tropical woods are being harvested faster than they can be replenished.

Many governments have aggressively supported the clearing of forests. Such is the case with Indonesia, whose Transmigration Program seeks to relocate 140 million people and convert 2.5 million acres of rain forest to rice paddies. Brazil built the infamous Trans-Amazon Highway and encouraged millions of landless peasants to move to the Amazon and clear the jungle. Both projects received support from the World Bank.

As forests are cut and cleared, they become drier and less resilient, increasing the chance of fires getting out of control. Drought attributed to the El Nio climate phenomenon compounds the problem.

"This isn't a problem of too much fire," says fire expert Stephen Pyne at Arizona State University in Tempe. "It's a political and land-use problem. Planned fires are being set in places and ways that are inappropriate."

The destruction of tropical forests is expected to have serious consequences ranging from the extinction of plants and animals to an increased concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Tropical rain forests house the greatest concentration of plant and animal species on earth. An estimated 50 percent of the world's species live in the Amazon alone. Scientists lament that large numbers of species are being eliminated before they can even be identified and given a name.

These forests also allow the harvesting of nontimber products like rattan (a vine used in furniture), tropical nuts, and natural rubber, which provides livelihood for millions of people. In India, such products account for three-quarters of export earnings and half of the employment in the forestry sector, according to the Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

The burning of forests releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which may contribute to global warming. If the forests aren't able to regrow - because they've been replaced with pasture or crops - the land will not absorb as much carbon from the atmosphere. In a six-month period, the Indonesian fires may have released more carbon dioxide than all the cars and power stations in Western Europe release in a year, estimates University of Nottingham (England) peat specialist Jack Rieley.

Problem: outdated land-use plans

In the Brazilian Amazon, WWF estimates that burning increased by almost 30 percent last year. It's unclear if that has resulted in equally high forest lost, as much burning takes place in previously cleared or damaged forests.

Detailed analysis for 1997 will not be completed for a year or more, but new Brazilian Space Agency figures for the 1994-95 burning season were released Jan. 26 and indicate a dramatic increase in the rate of forest loss.

Preliminary estimates from that agency suggest deforestation rates declined in 1996 and 1997.

But "these analyses are far too preliminary to take seriously," warns Smithsonian Institution rain forest expert Thomas Lovejoy. "The burning was greater last year than it's ever been - there's no question about that. I've seen images that show smoke covering most of Brazil. It won't be clear for a while if deforestation was equally serious."

"The real problem is that most of the land-use planning in these countries is outdated, based on the assumption that a forest has no value beyond that of its timber," fire ecologist Goldamer says.

"They need to take into account that well-managed forests can provide timber and many other economic and environmental benefits at the same time," he says.

Some Forest Fire Hot Spots in 1997


Fires affected 540,000 to 4.2 million acres of land in 1997, most in scrubland and secondary forests. World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia estimates that up to 250,000 acres of primary forest may also have been lost.


Bush fires spread to highland rain forests last fall, covering the capital, Port Moresby, with dense smoke on several occasions.


There were few fires in the temperate and northern forests of the United States and Canada last year. But this could be cause for concern. Unlike their tropical cousins, burning is part of the natural ecological cycle of many northern forests. Overzealous fire suppression can leave a dangerous quantity of fuel in the forest, which can cause uncontrollable (and ecologically unhelpful) fires, according to Henry Lewis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton.


Last year may have been the worst yet for the destruction of the Amazon rain forests. Satellites detected 20,469 fires last fall, up 28 percent from 1996. But because much of the burning may have taken place in previously deforested areas, it's too early to tell if forest loss matched the scale of the fires.


An estimated 325,000 acres of vegetation burned in forest fires, including 17,000 in national parks. A hundred people were reportedly killed or badly injured by the fires.

- Colin Woodard

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