In 2017, a terrible drought affected most of Mongolia, drying the immense steppe and forests turning the landscape from green to yellow.

Livestock struggled to find enough water and grass to fatten up after the hard winter. Herders’ lives were more difficult and stressful than ever as they watched their animals weaken and die. The loss of their livestock was putting incomes and families at risk.

While the preceding winter had taken a huge toll on animals, the coming spring looked like it might do the same.

Bulgan, the governor of Batsumber soum, the second largest soum in Tov province, had a lot on his mind. The beginning of the spring started with a livestock epidemic, which had to be contained, to help the community avoid losing its most important source of revenue.

The whole emergency budget of the soum, 10 million MNT, was spent on trying to solve this issue. The area undertook a massive vaccination program to try to stop the foot and mouth disease. It worked.

But even though the epidemic was contained, Bulgan was still worried as the drought was hitting the population hard. There was little he could do but wait for the rains to come.

In May, mysterious clouds of smoke appeared on the horizon. The smoke seemed to be originating from the forest.  Bulgan guessed what it was but wished with all his heart that he was wrong. He sent someone to verify.

The news was bad… as Bulgan had guessed, it was indeed a forest fire. Worse, the fire had already grown so large that it would be very hard for the community to contain it.

The cause of the fire was unknown. Maybe lightening or perhaps someone’s negligence? In Mongolia, 90% of the forest fires are caused by humans. People unaware of the risks of carelessly disposing cigarettes, burning campfires or religious fires in dry terrain, or even driving motorcycles whose exhausts can ignite a fire.

 

Bulgan had to act quickly before the fire reached his community, and put the soum and its citizens at risk. He rang the soum’s alarm to gather the villagers and organized teams to respond to the fire.

Unfortunately, there was little equipment to deal with the fire, just a few spades and mobile sprayers. Therefore, people had to bring some of their own equipment such as shovels and sacks, to dig and build fire lines.

With such limited equipment the citizens had little chance to contain the wild fire. Yet they marched forward with courage.

While the men took on the fire, back at the village women prepared food for the firefighting teams and tended to the livestock.

At the fire front it was rapidly clear that the villagers didn’t have the resources to fight the fire, as it consumed more land with each passing day.

Desperate, Bulgan contacted the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) for help. NEMA galvanized firefighters from all over the country to fight the fire.

It took 45 days to stop the fire.

For Bulgan and his soum this was an epic disaster, on several fronts. For the nearly two months that his community was under threat, all economic activities ground to a halt. They also lost an important area of forest which was a source of additional income and food for the community: nuts, berries, and animals.

Bulgan knows that, even though his community is very active in fighting emergencies, they are not ready for other wild fires. Without financial help, adequate equipment, education and training to fight fires, he knows that not much will improve. His only hope is that there will be sufficient rain and that people will be more careful not to trigger a fire when traveling through the forest.

Wild fires in Mongolia affected 466,571 ha of boreal forest in 2017. Those can be contained naturally by the forest itself but an intervention is necessary if it puts people and livestock at risk. Not enough resources are allocated to fight wild fires and this put the lives of the first responders, villagers, at risk.

As part of the REDD+ National Strategy development processes, UN-REDD Mongolia National Program is partnering with the government of Mongolia to prioritize efforts in reducing deforestation and forest degradation.

With fire being identified as one of the main drivers deforestation and forest degradation in Mongolia, effective policies and measures that aim at addressing the most important drivers of forest change is being developed. So that improved forest fire control and prevention strategies, would not only be beneficial in protecting local people from the risks caused by fires, but would also be important in protecting forests, maintain permafrost, biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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