Fire Situation in Indonesia

(IFFN No. 26 - January 2002, p. 37-45)

The situation between 1982 and 1997


The wildland fire and smoke-haze episodes in Indonesia during the 1980s and 1990s have been largely influenced by the occurrence of droughts triggered by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) (Figure 1.) and the associated increase in wildland fire danger (Figure 2).

The fires of 1982-1983

The first documented large fire and smoke episode in the second half of the twentieth century in Indonesia occurred during the ENSO event of 1982-1983. The fire scene in the Indonesian and Malaysian provinces of Borneo was set by extreme drought and by extensive slash-and-burn land-clearing activity that resulted in a large number of escaped fires. In East Kalimantan alone, ca. 3.5 million ha were affected by drought and fire. Of the total area, 0.8 million ha was primary rain forest, 1.4 million ha logged-over forest, 0.75 million ha secondary forest (mainly in the vicinity of settlement areas), and 0.55 million ha peat swamp biome (Lennertz and Panzer 1984). It has been assumed that the overall land area of Borneo affected by fires exceeded 5 million ha (Goldammer and Seibert 1990).

One of the first aerial and ground surveys of the fire damage was carried out in a burned area in Kutai National Park, to the west of heavily logged and farmed areas (Leighton 1984). It was found that fire damage was higher in secondary forest than in primary forest, although the degree of damage varied greatly. The fires had twice swept through the ITO timber concession southwest of Kutai National Park, the first causing defoliation of many trees and lianas; the second completely burning this accumulated litter. No surviving trees were observed in areas that had burned twice.

In his 1983 ground survey of the northern part of the National Park, Leighton (1984) found that the primary forest had been badly damaged. He was unable to report any unburned primary forest on hills, ridges, or slopes that could have served as a control plot to distinguish damage by drought or fire. Narrow belts (width 5 to 20 m) of unburned primary forest flanking streams were also observed, but these accounted for only 5-10 percent of the total area. In the burned areas, 99 percent of the trees below 4 cm DBH had died, although about 10 percent were resprouting. Mortality was 50 percent for trees 20-25 cm DBH and 20-35 percent for trees larger than 25 cm DBH.

A series of studies on regeneration of the fire-affected rain forest were conducted in the mid-1980's and reviewed by Goldammer and Seibert (1990). Another review is currently prepared by Dennis et al. (2001). In 1988-1989, a comprehensive research project was carried out on the cause and effects of forest fires of the 1982-1983 fire season in East Kalimantan. Goldammer et al. (1996) provided a summary of the findings. The study area was the Mahakam basin, which was most seriously affected by drought and forest fires. The research area, mapped by satellite remote sensing and aerial videotaping, has a total size of 4.7 million ha and stretches from the east coast of Borneo to the mountainous areas in the centre and the north. A line from Balikpapan to Long Iram forms the southern boundary.

Within the study area the actual area affected by fire was ca. 3.2 million ha, of which 2.7 million ha were tropical rainforests. Forests on sites with low water retention capacity were most seriously affected by fire, especially peat swamp forests, heath forests (kerangas), forests on limestone hills and rocks and all other forests on shallow soils. Logged-over forests were also particularly affected by fire, especially those growing on drought-sensitive sites. There is a close correlation between the year of logging and fire intensity. Those forests that had been logged shortly before the fire event were very seriously damaged. Finally, the fire particularly affected forests in the vicinity of settlements and along rivers and roads.

Wildfires and land use fires after 1982-1983

During and after the ENSO and fire episodes of 1987, 1991, 1994 and 1997, only limited research has been accomplished on the extent and damage caused by fire and atmospheric pollution. In 1996 the Environmental Impact Management Agency (BAPEDAL) released fire statistics for the period 1984-1994 that were published in International Forest Fire News (Makarim and Deddy 1997). They revealed that in most years wildfires affect between 15 000 and 25 000 ha. Extreme years were 1991 (199 000 ha) and 1994 (406 000 ha). The figures on fire occurrence released by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry for 1994 included burning activities other than wildfires for the first time. According to the Ministry a total land area of ca. 5.1 million ha was affected by fire in 1994in the categories listed in Table 1.



Figure 1. Sea-surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the NINO 3-4 region coincide with the occurrence of ENSO events and droughts associated with increased burning activities in Southeast Asia. Source: Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC).



Figure 2. The Keetch/Byram Dryness Index (KBDI) for East Kalimantan, 1980-2000. The KBDI is a metric fire danger index based on rainfall and temperature data and expresses the moisture deficiency according to the maximum possible moisture content of the soil. It indicates the dryness condition of the vegetation and therefore the level of fire danger. The Indonesian- German Integrated Forest Fire Management project (IFFM) has been working with this Fire Danger Rating system in East-Kalimantan since 1995 and has established a historical analysis dating back to 1979.Source: Fire Information System of the Integrated Forest Fire Manage- ment (IFFM) project, Samarinda, East Kalimantan, Indonesia (IFFM 2000).

     Table 1. Categories of fires and area affected in Indonesia in 1994.

Categories of fire use and wildfires

Area affected (ha)

Traditional dryland farming


Shifting cultivation 1.500.000
Transmigrant farming 260.000
Plantations 221.000
Transmigrant settlements 39500
Reforestation areas 20.500
Timber estates 17.000
Natural forests 8.000


National Indonesian fire management and related projects before 1997

As a consequence of the smog episode of 1991 in Southeast Asia, which was mainly caused by fires burning on the Indonesian archipelago, the Government of Indonesia called for international cooperation to support national fire management capability. In June 1992 an international conference on "Long-Term Integrated Forest Fire Management" was held in Bandung. Participants included national agencies involved in fire management and the international community, represented by national and international development organizations and potential donors. The objective of the conference was to develop the framework for a concerted international action plan on "Long-Term Integrated Forest Fire Management" for Indonesia. In this programme all partners involved share expertise and fire management resources (BAPPENAS 1992).

The implementation of the "Bandung Strategy" is underway. In 1994 a bilateral Indonesian-German project "Integrated Forest Fire Management" (IFFM) became operational. The project will build up fire management capability in the Province of East Kalimantan (project duration: 1994-2002). The IFFM system includes community-based fire management approaches. IFFM aims to serve as a model for other Indonesian provinces.

After 1994 several additional foreign assisted projects were established:

In 1995, legal provision was made to establish a "National Coordination Team on Forest and Land and Fire Management" under the Ministry for Environment (executed by BAPEDAL) for coordinating fire and atmosphere pollution management measures at the national level in case of a large fire and smog disaster. This coordination body was also active in 1996 in public awareness campaigns (Makarim and Deddy 1997). Also in 1995, the Ministry of Forestry was designated to establish national and provincial fire coordination committees.

The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) sponsored the development of "National Guidelines on Protection of Forests Against Fire". The guidelines were finalized in 1999 (ITTO 1999). This project followed the framework provided by the international "ITTO Guidelines on Fire Management in Tropical Forests" (ITTO 1997).

All the ambitious projects initiated in the first half of the 1990's had only a limited impact on the overall fire and smog situation during the 1997-1998 episode. In the province of East Kalimantan the institutional approach of the GTZ-assisted IFFM Project obviously had a strong impact on the provincial government in the first phase of the 1997-1998 ENSO event. The integration of IFFM into the structures of the Ministry of Forestry (Kanwil) and the Provincial Forest Service (Dinas) provided direct access to the governor and the provincial Pusdal Committee through which all agencies concerned with fire and smoke issues make joint decisions.

The operational use of the Early Warning System (Fire Danger Rating System) was proven to give a realistic and meaningful assessment of the build-up of fire danger during 1997-1998. The provincial governments were alerted in early August and immediately took the necessary steps to reduce burning by concessionaires and villagers. It was very important that the foreign-assisted project had begun to create line organisation structures in the Provincial Forest Service, Dinas (top-down development of lines of responsibility and command). On the other hand, the IFFM project – like the EU- and JICA-assisted projects in Sumatra – has a distinct grassroots-level (community-based, participatory) approach by involving the villagers in the fire prevention program. Furthermore, IFFM assists the fire users by providing extension service. In 1998, however, East Kalimantan was extremely affected by the illegal use of fire and escalating wildfires (see part II).

The government of Indonesia took the first measures in 1995 to discourage the use of fire in land clearing activities by issuing a decree to the forest plantation industry (Hutan Tanaman Industri - HTI) that banned the use of fire in converting forests. In December 1997 the government imposed another ban on the use of fire in forest conversion and slash-and-burn agriculture. However, this fire ban was not enforced and was largely ignored by both smallholders and large forestry enterprises.

The search for alternatives to burning for forest conversion and traditional slash-and-burn agriculture must receive high priority. Until 1997 only a few cases are known in which HTI enterprises used conversion methods not involving fire. Pt. Adindo Hutani developed an interesting alternative system for its conversion program in East Kalimantan (Tarakan). This non-fire conversion procedure involves a three-step mechanical treatment of non-commercial wood/plant biomass, the extraction of commercial timber and mechanical site preparation. Research projects are underway within the international program "Alternatives to Slash-and-Burn" supported by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Little research and development has been devoted to the utilization of woody biomass for chip or briquette production and to the exploration of potential markets.

Projects initiated during and after the fire/smoke episode of 1997

In response to the fires of 1997-1998, a large number of bi- and multilaterally-supported projects were initiated and implemented in Indonesia. Detailed information is available at the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC 2000) and in a survey prepared by CIFOR (Dennis 1998). Major new activities include the East Asia and Pacific Environmental Initiative (EAPEI), supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID 2000), and a project supported by IUCN-WWF, FireFight South East Asia (IUCN 2000).

In November 1997, the Government of Indonesia convened an "International Conference on Science and Technology for the Assessment of Global Environmental Change and its Impacts on the Indonesian Maritime Continent" in Jakarta. The conference resulted in recommendations for a national action plan in research and technology development, increasing international research cooperation and the establishment of a multinational research centre to serve the countries within the region in the areas of climate prediction, crop estimation and disaster mitigation. This centre is still in the process of being established as the "Indonesian Research Institute for Climate, Environment and Society" (INRICES) under the founding initiative of the Indonesian Ministry for Research and Technology (BPPT).

Following discussions with senior government officials in Jakarta and Manila regarding the fire and smoke situation in Indonesia, assistance was requested from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). An Advisory Technical Assistance, "Planning for Fire Prevention and Drought Management and Mitigation of their Impacts", was prepared by the ADB. Under the coordination of BAPPENAS (the executing agency) the program was to be implemented through the Environmental Impact Management Agency (BAPEDAL) in 1998.

The initiative of the Consultative Group on Indonesian Forestry (CGIF), under the GTZ-supported program "Strengthening the Management Capabilities of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry”, restored the lost momentum of cooperation between the national agencies and foreign-assisted projects in fire management.

The fire episode of 1997-98

In 1997-1998 Indonesia experienced a fire episode that exceeded the size and impact of the 1982-1983 fires (Goldammer et al. 1999; Hoffmann et al. 1999a; Siegert and Hoffmann 2000). A prolonged and severe fire season occurred during the ENSO of 1997-1998. Six months of drought occurred in 1997. Following a short period of rainfall in December 1997, the drought continued through May 1998. During the 1997 ENSO event large fires occurred in Sumatra, West and Central Kalimantan and Irian Jaya/Papua. In 1998 the greatest fire activity occurred in East Kalimantan. These widespread fires resulted in dense haze across Southeast Asia, causing respiratory health problems as well as transportation delays and accidents on land, air and sea. Economic costs were estimated at over US$9.3 billion (ADB 1999) and the smoke-haze resulting from the fires led to disagreements with neighbouring countries (i.e. Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore).

All the fires of 1997-1998 were human-caused. The majority of the fires were due to land speculation and large-scale forest conversion as a result of inadequate and unenforced land use policies. In addition, fires in settlement/transmigration areas were caused by land use conflicts, carelessness or hunting. However, the lack of inter-agency coordination to respond and suppress the fires played an important role in the severity and extent of the fire situation. Although strong winds and prolonged drought contributed to the rapid spread of wildfires, Indonesia’s inadequate initial attack and large-fire suppression capacities were not sufficient to deal with the situation. These conditions continue to exist. The Indonesian province of East Kalimantan was the area most severely affected by the fires. Burned area is estimated at 5.2 million ha for 1997-1998, about 25 percent of the entire province (Hoffmann et al. 1999b). As a result of the 1997-1998 fires, East Kalimantan’s forests are now more susceptible to fire during normal dry seasons due to the degraded forest condition and the accumulation and alteration of native fuel complexes.

In 1999, fires occurred in Sumatra, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan. In Kalimantan over 400 fire events were detected in a single day in August using NOAA-AVHRR imagery. Although the 1999 fires did not reach the extent of those in 1997-1998, the risk of severe fires remains if another ENSO event occurs as predicted in 2001-2002.

Fire damage assessment:

Several approaches using optical and microwave sensors were undertaken to determine the extent of the 1997-1998 forest fires in Indonesia. Studies by several agencies, projects, organizations and institutes, both in Indonesia and overseas, were based on the visual interpretation of multi-temporal SPOT quicklook mosaics, the evaluation of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) AVHRR (Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer) imagery and the combined use of ERS-2 SAR (European Radar Satellite-2-Synthetic Aperture Radar) coherence data and ATSR (Along Tracking Scanning Radiometer) data. Liew et al. (1998), using SPOT quicklook mosaics, estimated the total burn scars in Sumatra at 1.5 million ha and 3.06 million ha in Kalimantan for the period January-December 1997. Fuller and Fulk (1998) estimated 2.3 million ha by using NOAA-AVHRR data within the IFFM GTZ NOAA\AVHRR processing window, which did not completely cover Sabah and West Kalimantan.

Through the combined use of ERS-SAR and ATSR, Antikidis et al. (1998) produced a first estimation of the forest area burned in Central Kalimatan in 1997. Out of an area of 21.76 million ha analysed, 588 000 ha of forest was classified as burned at that time. This number was later corrected to 1.8 million ha (Antikidis et al., pers. comm.). For the province of East Kalimantan, Hoffmann et al. (1999), using ERS-2 SAR and NOAA-AVHRR data, estimated that in 1997-1998 some 5.2 million ha, about 25 percent of the entire province, was affected by fire. A number of assessments and estimates by several Indonesian agencies and international organizations, based either on satellite assessments, aerial surveillance or ground assessments were compiled by the Asian Development Bank Project (ADB 1999) into a general estimate of 9.7 million ha, as shown in Table 2.

  Table 2. Estimated extent of fire-affected forests and other lands in Indonesia, 1997-1998. Source: 
  BAPPENAS (1999).

Land use/

land cover

Lowland Forest Peat and Swamp Forest Dry Scrub and grass Timber Plantations Agriculture Estate Crops Total (ha)
Kalimantan 2 375 000 750 000 375 000 116 000 2 829 000 55 000 6 500 000
Sumatra 383 000 308 000 263 000 72 000 669 000 60 000 1 755 000
Java 25 000   25 000   50 000   100 000
Sulawesi 200 000       199 000 1 000 400 000
Irian Jaya 300 000 400 000 100 000   97 000 3 000 900 000
Total (ha) 3 283 000 1 458 000 763 000 188 000 3 844 000 119 000 9 655 000


Figure 3. Fire damage classification of the 1997-1998 fires in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, based on ERS-SAR images. Source: Hoffmann et al. (2000).

Fire management organization

The economic and ecological loss due to the 1997-1998 wildfires exceeded several billion dollars (US) (ADB 1999). However, not all losses are accounted for, i.e. decreased biodiversity, increased soil erosion and the resulting loss of productive agriculture land. In the forest concessions of East Kalimantan, the estimated loss of 23 million cubic meters of harvestable timber due to the 1997-98 fires was estimated to be worth approximately two billion dollars (US) (Hinrichs 2000). This does not include reduction of biodiversity or loss of non-wood forest products, regeneration and small-diameter trees. Rehabilitation costs in the fire-affected concessions of East Kalimantan are estimated to be in the range of US$330-385 million.

The reasons for uncontrolled fires in Indonesia are manifold and complex. However, one factor is the lack of a functioning fire management organization. Considering the huge financial losses caused by past wildfires, a fire management organization is needed with the organizational capability to deal with the underlying technical, logistical, operational and social obstacles involved in managing human-caused fires.


Figure 4. Organizational structure of the Directorate of Forest and Estate Fire Operations at national level

At the national level, a new Directorate of Forest and Estate Fire Operations was established in early 2000 under the Directorate of Nature Protection and Conservation, Ministry of Forestry and Estate Crops (recently renamed the Ministry of Forestry). The new Directorate consists of four Sub Directorates (Figure 4) that are committed to dealing with the fire problem at a national planning level. However, past experience has shown that national planning efforts have little impact at the provincial and district levels. Although the root causes of wildfire problems in Indonesia are inadequate and conflicting land use planning policies and a lack of enforcement, a practical, “on-the-ground” approach is needed to deal with wildfires. Development of institutions and organizational structures at the provincial and district levels are needed to focus on environmental and fire prevention education in addition to fire suppression operations.

 In the Province of East Kalimantan, no single organization is currently responsible for overall fire management, prevention or suppression activities. Instead, fire management responsibilities are distributed among several provincial agencies with no clear lines of communication, responsibility or coordination. Additionally, fire management responsibilities are also unclear at the district level. This has resulted in a confusing and dysfunctional situation, causing conflicts and inefficiency.

The model of an integrated forest fire management system

Since 1994, the Integrated Forest Fire Management (IFFM) project, a cooperative development project under bilateral agreement between Indonesia and Germany, is attempting to establish a fire management system for the Province of East Kalimantan (IFFM, 2000). IFFM is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Forestry (Directorate General of Forest Protection and Conservation, Sub-Directorate of Forest and Estate Fire Operation). The IFFM project is implemented by the two provincial forestry agencies, Kanwil and Dinas Kehutanan. The IFFM concept consists of three major modules that include fire prevention, fire operations and fire information.

To institutionalise the IFFM concept and its long-term application in a legal and sustainable framework, Kanwil, Dinas and IFFM are proposing an integrated fire management organization at both the provincial and district levels

IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Johann G. Goldammer
The Global Fire Monitoring Center

c/o Freiburg University
D - 79085 Freiburg


Tel:  ++49-761-808011
Fax:  ++49-761-808012


Anja A. Hoffmann
Integrated Forest Fire Management (IFFM) Project

Jl. Kesuma Bangsa Kotak Pos 1202/826

Samarinda 75001
Kalimantan Timur

Fax:  ++62-541-733519
Tel:  ++62-541-732625


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Country Notes
IFFN No. 26