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3.2.5 Viet Nam

One of the few sources available to the Special Report on Forest Fires was the country analysis by Goldammer (1992). The report defined the following main fire regimes:

Regularly occurring wildfires in seasonally flammable deciduous forests

Due to seasonal climate, large tracts of Viet Nam's forests are characterised by deciduous or semi-deciduous tree species. Both the regular dry seasons and the seasonal availability of the shed leaves make these forests very fire-prone. In many of the deciduous dipterocarp forests wildfires occur almost annually, e.g. in the Central Plateau areas near the border with Cambodia. The dominant dipterocarps, e.g. Dipterocarpus intricatus, resprout after fires. Like in the neighbouring countries, e.g. in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and India, the seasonal forests (or "monsoon" forests) are quite adapted to the regular occurrence of fire. Fire exclusion would lead to a progressive development toward less fire-adapted broadleaved forests.

Wildfires in pine forest ecosystems

Indigenous pine forests occur in submontane and montane elevations throughout Viet Nam. The main species involved are Pinus merkusii and Pinus massoniana (in the lower elevations up to ca. 1000 m a.s.l) and Pinus kesiya (above 600 m a.s.l.). These forests occur over an area of ca. 135 000 ha and are highly endangered by overcutting due to illegal logging, expanding shifting agriculture, grazing practices and increasing demands for fuelwood and charcoal production. All these activities are closely linked with the use of fire and the threat of escaping wildfires. One of the areas with the highest wildfire risk in the Da Lat area (Lam Dong Province, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City). This mountain region is mainly populated by the Kinh, but also frequently visited by tourists from throughout the country because of the cool mountain climate and the beauty of the landscape. Both the local inhabitants and the tourists bring an increasing fire pressure to the ca. 42 000 ha of protected pine forest land. Many of the pine forests are considered as fire climax communities, meaning that at certain stages of forest development (e.g. mature, open stands) the trees are not severely affected by the frequent surface fires. The understorey of pine regeneration, as well as the hardwoods (dipterocarps), are killed by these fires, thus resulting in an overall loss of young age classes and species diversity. Too frequent burning in general has led to severe erosion and surface runoff. This problem has been observed throughout the pine belt of the mountain zone.

Wildfires in other natural and degraded vegetation

Much of the lowlands and the high plateau of Viet Nam formerly covered by seasonal or evergreen broadleaved forests is now degraded toward a shrub-tree-grass savannah. This vegetation is utilized extensively. Wildfires are occurring frequently. The fires are not set for specific purposes. They are occurring largely as a result of carelessness or intentional setting without any land-treatment purpose. The amount of former dipterocarp forest lands now degraded to a fire-climax savannah is not known exactly. It must be assumed, however, that several hundred thousands of hectares are to be classified in that category.

Other vegetation types frequently affected by fire are found in the Mekong Delta region. The economically very valuable Melaleuca leucadendron forests, which cover ca. 34 000 ha (of which 19 400 ha are in Minh Hai Province), are very fire-prone. Honey collectors cause many of the wildfires; and other fires are intentionally set in order to get permission for salvage logging. During the extended pan-Pacific drought of 1982 wildfires affected more than 20 000 ha of Melaleuca forests in the Southwest of the country.

A recent report by Shulman (2001) highlights the needs for advanced fire management in Tram Chim National Park which is one of the last remaining remnants of freshwater wetland habitat in the Mekong Delta. The park receives international recognition as seasonal habitat for endangered wildlife species, including the Sarus crane. Objectives of restoration and biodiversity conservation conflict with local people’s need for economic subsistence and development. Arson is a major cause of fires and will require an economic incentive based fire prevention programme. Management objectives of fire exclusion drive decisions relating to water levels, thus impacting all ecological processes within the park. Maintaining high water levels as a tool for fire exclusion conflicts with other management objectives integral to the park. There is an opportunity for development of a fire use programme within the park, in conjunction with fire effects research to expand the knowledge base.

Other fire-prone vegetation types are the result of the second Indochina war. During the war approximately 12 percent of South Viet Nam's forest cover was sprayed and damaged by herbicides, other forest areas were damaged by explosives, mechanical land clearing and burning operations. Formerly closed evergreen inland forests degraded to grasslands dominated by extremely flammable grasses, e.g. Imperata cylindrica and the exotic invader Pennisetum polystachyon. Fires are occurring almost annually and prevent the rehabilitation of these war-damaged forests.

Wildfire Data

The Forest Protection Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development released statistical data of wildfires in forests and other wooded land for the years 1997 to April 1999 (Table 3-1). The data reveal that the country experienced a higher occurrence of wildfires during the El Niño year 1998 as compared to the years before and after.

Table 3-1 Wildland fire statistics for Viet Nam, 1997-1999.


Total No. of Fires on Forest & Other Wooded Land


Total Area Burned


Area of Forest Burned


Area of Other Wooded Land Burned


Human Causes


Natural Causes


Unknown Causes




1 360

1 331






1 345

15 088

13 811

1 277






2 191

2  098





Source: Forest Protection Department, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Vietnam

Atmospheric impacts of land-use fires and wildfires

In the second half of 1997 and in early 1998, large areas in Southeast Asia were severely affected by a smoke-haze pollution episode caused by the emissions of forest conversion burning and wildfires on the Indonesian islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra. The episodes constituted an acute health risk to the public, exposing almost 100 million people in five countries in Southeast Asia to increased air pollution (WHO 1998, Phonboon 1998). An estimated 20 million suffered from respiratory problems in Indonesia alone (WHO 1998). The pollutant of major concern in respect to adverse health outcomes was particulate matter (WHO 1998), especially the fine particle fraction. To document the impacts of these fires on air quality, data for total suspended particulate matter (TSP) and for particulate matter below or equal to 10 microns in diameter (PM10) from selected sites in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were analysed by Heil and Goldammer (2001). These data were supplemented by meteorological data, satellite-derived data (e.g., the spaceborne air quality measurements by the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer [TOMS] Aerosol Index), and a summary of related research. TSP was above 2000 µg m-3 for several days in Indonesian locations close to the most extensive fire activity. Characteristically for emissions from vegetation burning, the additional atmospheric particle loading during the smoke-haze episode was predominantly due to an increase of the fraction below or equal to 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5). Due to the dominance of respirable particles (PM2.5) in the smoke-haze, current air quality monitoring based on TSP or PM10 may be inadequate to assess the health risk. Upgrading of PM2.5 monitoring facilities is therefore needed. Reducing the probability of similar smoke-haze events in future would require appropriate fire use and smoke management strategies.

A number of measurement campaigns have been made to identify the chemical composition of smoke plumes and the fire-affected regional atmosphere. However, no comprehensive set of accurate measurements is available that would allow one to summarise the overall impacts of fire emissions generated in 1997-98 on the regional or global atmosphere. Several estimates that are based on assumed fuel consumption rates indicate a magnitude of emissions of 350 million to one billion tons of the active trace gas carbon dioxide that acts as a greenhouse gas. The assumable release of 6 to 16 million tons of particulate matter mainly effects human health, visibility (including traffic safety), and the reduction of photosynthetically active radiation that may also affect growth of agricultural crops and to an atmospheric cooling effect.

At this stage it is considered premature to add another best guess estimate on the total release of trace gases and aerosols to the atmosphere. The major reason for this statement is the lack of available data on fuel consumption and combustion efficiency during the episode 1997-98 and a systematic, quantitative and qualitative regional research approach. The South East Asian Fire Experiment (SEAFIRE) in the first half of the 1990s attempted to provide such a regional research activity under the scheme of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and its core project International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC), but was never realized (Goldammer 1997).

In June 1998 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) called for a Workshop on Regional Transboundary Smoke and Haze in South-East Asia. The workshop was one element of WMO's efforts to enhance the capacity and capability of National Hydrometeorological and Meteorological Services (NMHSs) in South-East Asia to monitor and model smoke and haze episodes and the long range transport of anthropogenic pollutants., The workshop also aimed to improve the NMHS's abilities to advise, alert, and generally manage these pollution events. It involved a review and discussion of regional plans such as the WMO Programme to Address ASEAN Regional Transboundary Smoke (WMO-PARTS) (WMO 1999).

Regional policy initiatives to reduce "Transboundary Haze Pollution" in the South East Asian region

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) forms a political and geographic entity that seeks intra-regional and international cooperation in solving transboundary fire and fire-generated smoke pollution problems. ASEAN has appreciated inputs by ECE member countries to overcome the past and future environmental and humanitarian crises caused by indiscriminate burning of forests and other vegetation.

The regional smog events of 1991 and 1994 triggered a series of regional measures towards cooperation in fire and smoke management. In 1992 and 1995 regional workshops on "Transboundary Haze Pollution" were held in Balikpapan (Indonesia) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). This was followed by the establishment of a "Haze Technical Task Force" during the Sixth Meeting of the ASEAN Senior Officials on the Environment (ASOEN) (September 1995). The task force is chaired by Indonesia and comprises senior officials from Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The objectives of the work of the task force is to operationalize and implement the measures recommended in the ASEAN Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution relating to atmospheric pollution, including particularly the problem of fire and smoke (ASEAN 1995).

In December 1996, the ASEAN Institute of Forest Management (AIFM) convened the "Conference on Transboundary Pollution and its Impacts on the Sustainability of Tropical Forests" in Kuala Lumpur (AIFM 1997a). At that conference the ASEAN Fire Forum was formed, which came up with a proposal for an ASEAN-wide programme in fire management and research (Goldammer et al. 1997).

The Fire Forum discussed, among other issues, the "AIFM Plan of Action Regarding Forest Fire Management". That proposal dated back to 1995 and aimed to fulfil the actions required by the ASEAN Cooperation Plan. Although Canada had offered ca. 50 percent of the total costs for preparing the action plan, the proposal was not accepted by ASEAN. The plan was based on an attempt to survey the forest fire situation in the ASEAN region (AIFM 1997b).

In late 1997, a part of the original core of the AIFM Action Plan was again submitted to the ASEAN nations. The proposed "Fire Danger Rating System for Indonesia: An Adaptation of the Canadian Fire Behaviour Prediction System" is now being prepared on a cost-share base in a joint effort between the Canadian Forest Service and ASEAN member countries. Indonesia (BPPT) and Malaysia (Primary Industries) have agreed to contribute to the programme.

On 12 December 1997 Malaysia and Indonesia signed a bilateral memorandum of understanding allowing the two countries to work together to tackle the haze problem and manage any other form of disasters that may occur. On 20 December 1997, the ASOEN Task Force on Haze finalised the Regional Haze Action Plan.

In response to the ASEAN Environmental Ministers' Jakarta Declaration on Environment and Development on 18 September 1997, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) provided funding through a Regional Technical Assistance (RETA) grant for a regional cooperation project in the following areas:

• Catalyzing fire and haze prevention measures.

• Improving fire and haze prediction and monitoring.

• Improving fire management.

• Human resources development, (v) economic and scientific studies.

• Institutional support and information management.

The project Strengthening ASEAN´s Capacity to Prevent and Mitigate Transboundary Atmospheric Pollution Resulting from Forest Fires (RETA 5778-REG) was implemented in 1998-99 (Scarsborough 1998).

Because of the South East Asian fire and smoke-haze pollution episode of 1997-98, a series of international workshops were held to assist the ASEAN region in developing strategies to reduce the impacts of vegetation burning on the atmosphere and public health. In May 1998, the "Asia-Pacific Regional Workshop on Transboundary Pollution” was organized in Singapore by the Germany-Singapore Environmental Technology Agency (GSETA). Main focus of the workshop was to investigate common transboundary issues related to fire and industrial or smoke-haze in the ECE and the ASEAN region (Anonymous 1998). This ECE-ASEAN activity was followed by the above-mentioned WMO Workshop on Regional Transboundary Smoke and Haze in South-East Asia (Singapore, June 1998). At a later stage of the SE Asian fire crisis the International Cross-Sectoral Forum on Forest Fire Management in South East Asia (Jakarta, Indonesia, 7-8 December 1998) provided another international forum on regional wildland fire and smoke pollution issues (BAPPENAS/ITTO/JICA 1999).

Smoke originating from land-use fires and wildfires in the South East Asian region in 1997-98 affected more than 100 million people and caused acute and long-term respiratory health problems. Consequently WHO proposed the development of a comprehensive strategy based on broad international consensus. In November 1998, WHO convened a meeting in Peru to prepare the Health Guidelines for Vegetation Fire Events. The Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) chaired the meeting and co-edited and co-authored the Health Guideline Document and a comprehensive set of background documents on behalf of UNEP, WHO, and WMO (Schwela et al. 1999, Goh et al. 1999). The guidelines are designed to support decision-makers in preparedness and management of health problems arising from wildland fire smoke pollution.


Within the South East Asian / ASEAN region a joint, concerted approach is needed to cope with the problem of transboundary pollution caused by vegetation burning and to create mechanisms of mutual, border-crossing assistance in extreme fire situations. However, since fire is an essential tool in land use in the tropics a response strategy must be developed in which the benefits from fire use would be encouraged, at the same time that the negative impacts of fire are reduced. National and regional fire management plans and policies must take into consideration the complexity and diversity of fire uses in different vegetation types and land-use systems.


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