Overview on Forest Fires in Kazakhstan
(IFFN No. 22 - April 2000, p. 40-48)
Kazakhstan is a large country covering a total surface of 2.7 million km2. The southern portions of the West-Siberian lowlands enter into the North of country. The central part of country is taken by the Kazakh low hill lands (Sary-Arka). There are separate mountain arrays: Kyzyl-Ray, Karkaraly, Ulutau, with elevations of up to 1565 m a.s.l.. In the South the Central Kazakhstan low hill lands stretch into one of the most anhydrous deserts - Betpak-Dala. Extensive area Zhetysu is located to the East from Betpak-Dala. Its majority consist of Balkhash Hollow, and Sasykkol-Alakol Hollow is the east part of it . There are mountain arrays of Southern and Rudnyj Altai, with elevations up to 4506 m (Mt. Belukha), Saura (3805 m), Tarbagatai (2992 m), Zhungar Alatau (4463 m), Northern Tien-Shan (up to 6995 m - peak Khan-Tengri) are located in East and Southeast.
The climate of Kazakhstan is extremely continental. There are cold and long winters and dry, short summers in the northern part, and, vice-versa, short and low-snow winters and long, dry and hot summers in the south. Summer droughts accompanied by dusty storms and dry winds are very common . In such phases the fire danger increases sharply and the number of wildfires occurring on wooded land is extremely high.
There are about 50,000 lakes on the territory of Kazakhstan. Balkhash, Zaisan, Alakol, Tengiz, Sasykkol, Kushmurun, Markakol are the largest. The northern and northeastern parts of the Caspian Sea and northern part of the Aral sea enter Kazakhstan.
The large size of the territory of Kazakhstan stipulates the high variety in natural landscapes. Five major natural zones are distinguished:
High-mountainous landscape zone
- Nival with eternal snow
- Alpine meadows
- High-mountainous coniferous forests
Forest-steppe landscape zone
- Southern forest-steppe
- Typical forest-steppe
Temperate steppe landscape zone
- Northern different grassy-cereal steppes
- Southern dry tipchak-kovyl steppes
Semi-desert landscape zone
- Lowhill-foothill semi-desert
- Flat semi-desert.
Desert landscape zone
- wormwood-solsolary deserts
- ephemerial-wormwood deserts
The climatic features of these zones are shown in Table 1.
Tab.1. Basic climatic indexes of natural zones of Kazakhstan.
Air temperature -annual average (°C)
+ 0.3... +1.0
+ 0.3... +1.0
Average temperature in July (°C)
Average temperature in January (°C)
-16... - 19
Annual precipitation (mm)
Summer precipitation (% of total annual)
Duration of vegetation period (days)
Duration of the snow period (days)
Area (percentage of land cover)
Despite of the overall rigid climatic conditions, forests grow practically in all landscape zones of the country, and Kazakhstan has a large Forest Fund; its structure is given in Table 2.
It is necessary, however, to note the particularities of these forests which have a quite distinctly different image distinguishing them from European forests. Most important is the occurrence of "desert forests", which cover half of the forest fund and which are dominated by the unique wood plant Saksaoul (Haloxylon sp.). Practically Saksaoul is not subject to natural fires. However, due to its high calorific value the wood is used as ecologically pure cooking fuel. Due to its unique large-rooted system Saksaoul is a principal anchorage of the soil in the struggle with to the transition to sand. Due to the root system Saksaoul can grow on sites where there is practically no precipitation. The scanty surface of its specifically drought-adapted leaves prevents water evaporation and saving water for survival.
Tab.2. Structure of the Forest Fund of Kazakhstan
Area ( x 1000 ha)
Saksaoul (desert forest)
The Forest Fund of Kazakhstan is divided in natural fire danger classes (Tab.3). Figure 1 shows the types and pyrological classification of forests in Kazakhstan.
From a firefighting point of view in limits of landscape zones it is possible to allocate regions distinguishing in conditions of origin, distribution and development of fires.
The forest-steppe zone is located at the limits of the West-Siberian Lowland and occupies the northern part of Kazakhstan (territory of North-Kazakhstan, Aqmola and Pavlodar administrative provinces) with a total share of more than 10 % of the territory of the country. This is occupied by intensive agriculture (grain, pstures and grasslands for hay production) and large areas of wooded lands. Fires occurring on these territories cause high losses in the agriculture and forest sectors. Systematic wildland fire protection is therefore required by state forest and agricultural enterprises. The fires usually occur in the early spring and in autumn, especially in dry years. The basic reasons of wildfires are agricultural burning and violation of the requirements of fire safety.
The steppe landscape zone takes up to 20 % of the total territory of the republic. All steppe vegetation and the crops grain quite often suffer from human-caused fires, mainly from agricultural burning. The steppe phytomass after its drying becomes a dangerous combustible material. The fire in conditions of kovyl (Stipa capillata L.) and tipchak (Festuca sulcata Hack) grassy steppe usually last for long time and spread over large areas. The load of a dry phytomass of a herb on such sites changes from 0.22 up to 0.38 ton/ha. The fires start due to negligence of shepherds, fishers and hunters, machines, members of expeditions, agricultural burnings and dry thunder-storms, and cause large harm to the national economy. The crops of agricultural cultures, pastures, haymakings and groves are damaged and destroyed by fires. The velocity of distribution of a steppe fire is directly dependent of wind velocity. Flame heights usually reach 0.9-1.0 m in grass fuelbeds of 30 to 40 cm height. In the kovyl steppe fire can spread against the wind with a velocity of 5 to 10 times below the wind-driven spread rate. During such a wind-driven headfire a convective movement is formed, and the fire quite often "runs" along a top of grass stand. When it reaches either a natural barrier or a mineralised strip (firebreak) it stops, and the phytomass on the whole area burned over by the headfire gradually burns down.
Tab. 3. Classes of natural fire danger by V. Arkhipov
Groups of Forest Types, Planted and Deforested Territories
Characteristic Fire Types and phases of their origin
Coniferous saplings. Logged sites of dry and fresh pines, larch, fir and grassy cedar forests, bushy broad grassy silver fir forests. Dry and rocky pine forests. Damaged and dying tree stands (died dry stands, sites of storm debris and wind Falls, unfinished harvest sites, slash, insect-damaged stands).
Surface fires during the whole fire season. Crown fires occur on sites with high fuel loads.
Young pine forests, especially with pine undergrowth. Periodically dry larch forests. Cedar forests on country rocks of southern slopes. Dry growing conditions of flood-plain forests.
Surface fires are possible during the whole fire season. Crown fires occur during the phase of highest fire intensity.
Continuous harvest areas of coniferous forests in moist and wet sites. Dry fir forests, fresh larch and fir forests, wet pine forests. Mountainous-valley silver fir and fir forests. Cedar forests of remaining types of a forest. Fresh growing conditions of flood-plain forests. Radical and derivative fresh birch and aspen groves and their cut sites.
Surface and crown fires are possible in phases of summer fire maxima, and in mountain forests - in phases of spring and autumn maximas.
Wet pine forests. Wet dark-coniferous taiga forests. Wet larch forests. Mossy-grassy silver fir forests, wet fir forests. Mossy fir forests. Bushy, dog-rose and aspen fir forests. Apple, birch and aspen groves. Wet growing parts of flood-plain forests. Black saksaoul.
The occurrence of fires is possible in phases of spring and autumn fire maximas. In a phase of summer maxima the fires are possible in pine forests
Sub-alpine coniferous forests. Cedar forests on bare rocks. Wet birch and aspen groves. Damp poplar groves. Willow groves of all types. All types of saksaoul (except black saksaoul).
The start of a fire is possible only under extraordinarily unfavourable conditions.
Fig.1. A forest pyrological map of Kazakhstan. The legend at the left side of the map shows forest types and fire danger classes.
The Central Kazakhstan Low Hill Land is located in wood zone on a height of a northwest part of Sary-Arka (Aqmola province, Baian-Aoul of the Pavlodar province, Karkaraly of the Karagandy province) [1, 4]. Wood and steppe vegetation, climate and relief of region promote origin, distribution and development of wildfires, especially in hot, dry and windy weather. The struggle with fires is hampered here because of inaccessibility of wood sites. At the same time rocky ledges and the stony looses act as natural obstacle of further fire spread.
Fires in pine forests of Sary-Arka represent a major factor influencing to shape plantings and bringing large damage to the forest economy. Afforested wood species here are the pine (Pinus sylvestris), and birch (Betula verrucosa Ehrh). Fire hazard and flammability are highest in the following forest types: very dry stony-rocky pine forests, dry stony lichen-pine forests, dry cereals-berry pine forest. Average annual amount of fires here is about hundred, the average area of one fire is 5.4 ha during an average fire season. The basic reason of forest fires here is a violation of the fire prevention rules by many people having a rest in sanatoriums, boarding houses, camping sites, motels and tourist bases, and by the local population (see Tab.4). Lightning represents only a minor fraction of all fire starts. Coniferous wood arrays, especially undergrowth and wood plantations, differ by high flammability, that is stipulated by high fire danger of coniferous stands, dryness of a climate and availability of a many surface wood combustible materials in the mentioned above types of forests - from 9 up to 30 tons/ha. Special attention in forests of this region should be given to preventive maintenance of fires and regulating recreational activities.
The Band (Strip) Pine Forests (Lentochnyie Groves) of Western Siberia and Kazakhstan are located in a steppe part between Irtysh and Ob' rivers . The forests have large water-, soil-, field-protective and aesthetic importance, are a basic source of wood in region. The basic afforestation species is Scotch pine (Pinus silvestris). Fire hazard and flammability are highest in the following pine forest types: dry forest of high dunes, dry forests of slanting hillocks, topographic depressions, lowlands. In the indicated forest types fires are even common in wet years. In the very dry year 1997 extremely large, catastrophic fires occurred in the timber enterprises of Semey (Semipalatinsk) Forest Management Department, totalling 511 fires affecting anarea of 58,893 ha. In timber enterprises of Band Pine Forests of the Pavlodar province 316 forest fires burned 17,672 ha in the same year. The basic reasons of wood fires is violation of the fire prevention rules. In connection to high fire danger and flammability of Band Pine Forests, basic work on protection them from fires should be preventive maintenance and operative work on a detection and suppression of the originating centers of combustion.
The island pine forests of Kostanai province are located by green islands among extensive unforested spaces. There is a plain relief. The climate is extremely arid, annual precipitation is 240 to 350 mm. The duration of an average fire season exceeds 180 days. The forests here repeatedly were exposed to excessive burning. For instance, the large fires on the territory of Naurzum Reserve have essentially reduced the total size of forest stands. There is no natural renewing on burned sites; only occasionally in saucer-shape lowerings pine, aspen, and birch are meeting. The saved pine stands are damaged noticeably.
The remaining pine forests of the region also were exposed to pernicious action of fire, to what testify burning wound on trunks of trees. Despite of the damages, pine forests represent favourite vacation spots for people from the cities Kostanai, Rudnyj, Lissakovsk, and tourists from other regions. During the summer season numerous children camps, recreation houses, tourist bases are functioning here. The gains of the personnel of wood protection service should be directed on preventive work among the population, tourists, fishers and hunters.
The semi-desert engaging the central part of country (22 % of the territory) represents the transitional zone between steppe and desert. Typical landscapes are hillock-sandy plains with wormwood-grassy and bushy vegetation. For these conditions wormwood-salsola (Artemisia / Salsola regida) vegetation is characteristic which is not forming closed grass stands.
In valleys of the drying up rivers, in crevices of hills there are small sites of meadows. A climate rather droughty: cold and low-snow winter, dry and hot summer. Fires are occurring frequently. The steadfast attention is required by protection of fires first of all on pastures and haymaking grasslands.
The zone of deserts reaches to the central and southwest parts of Kazakhstan, between 48° and 41°N. It is covered by Aral-side sand Kyzyl-Kum and Kara-Kum (drainage-basin of Syr-Darya river) and sand southern Balqash-side (drainage-basin of Ile river), that represents about 47 % of territory of country . Characteristics of the climate is a large insolation sum, extreme continentality and high aridity. The large rivers (Ural, Syr-Darya, Ile, Lepsy) and other rivers begin outside deserted zone. Landscapes are characterised by black saksaoul (Haloxylon aphyllum), white saksaoul (Haloxylon persicum), zhuzgun (Calligonum arborescens), tamarisk (Tamarix), chingil (Halinodendron Vess.), sandy acacia (Caragana Lam.), zhantaq (Alhagi pseudalhagi), wormwood (Artemisia), salsola (Salsola regida). Relief and climate promote fire occurrence. Despite of high flammability fires are a rare phenomenon, in basic because of a lack of fuel continuity. The groves of black saksaoul are characterized by highest fire hazard since a continuous grass allows the spread of fire to extended areas. Though these are surface fires, saksaoul is highly damaged because of its small height.
Tab.4. Distribution of the number of forest fires with regards to their origin in Kazakhstan 1997
Forest Management ssociations and Reserves
Total Number of Fires
Violation of the Fire Prevention Rules (%)
Almaty State Reserve
*data are probably underestimated
**data are probably overestimated
Fire protection of arid vegetation in the described zone has an important value, as fire destroys a valuable fodder basis consisting of wood, bushy and grassy vegetation which also promotes fastening of sand and creation of the appropriate desert microclimate
Tougai (bottom glade forests) growing on territory of five southern provinces of country: Almaty, Zhambyl, Kyzyl-Orda, Taldy-Korgan, and South-Kazakhstan. The total area occupied by these forests comprises more than 473,000 ha. The forest have a high value for soil and pasture protection and recreational activities. They aprovide habitats for a high concentration and variety of wildlife and birds, and they serve as winter range of domestic and wild animals. Tougai grounds of agricultural farms are used for haymaking, pastures, kitchen gardens and cattle wintering. Tougais are intersected by tracks and roads, suitable for travel of a motor transport; the latter also serving as barrier in the path of a fire. Long-term statistical data show an occurrence of eight forest fires per year (with an average area burned per fire of 28 ha). The basic reason is agricultural burning for improving haymaking sites and pastures embedded in woody vegetation. It is necessary to strengthen monitoring for burning, as the fires damage significant areas of valuable forests . By expert evaluation three groups of fire dangers of basic groves types are determined: high, average and low. Here forest vegetation is replaced by various wood and bushy species: willows (Salix wilhelmsiana, S. fragilis L.), lokh (Elacagnus angustifolia L.), poplar (Populus diversifolia), turn (Padus rasemosa gilib).
The fire season in northern part of tougais begins in middle of April and comes to an end in October, and in the southern part in February/March and November respectively .
The mountain arrays are located in the Southeast and East of Kazakhstan. The elevations range from 500 m a.s.l. in the depressions up to 7000 m in mountains. They represent an important pasture area where dark and light coniferous forests are growing. The climate is highly to moderately continental, with large oscillations of temperatures in the winter and summer and with variable precipitation of 500 to 800+ mm in the mountains and 300 to 400 mm in the foothills) . During extremely dry and hot years fires are frequent and spread over laarge areas. The foothill plains of the Zaissan and Ile plains are used as spring-autumn pastures and their protection from fires is required.
The most fire-prone forest types are cedar, larch and fir forests. They especially have suffered during the droughts of 1974 and 1997. Fire suppression in mountain terrain is a very labour-consuming process requiring high expenditures of forces and firefighting tools, development of special detection methods. A forest fire which occurred on 13 May 1999 on a slope of Kokshe Mountain can serve as an example. Having been started by negligent tourists in dry windy weather (see Fig.2) the fire quickly transformed to a fire running upslope. The fire was not extinguished before fully burning out a forest array up to the top of the mountain. The area affected by this fire was 32 ha (red boundary line in Fig.3).
Fig.2. Start of the fire on Kokshe on 13 May 1999 (see text)
Fig.3. Kokshe fire burn scar (delineation by red line)
For the last half-century the Forest Fund of the republic has undergone modifications shown on Fig. 4. Here pressure of agriculture - "assimilation of virgin soils" in the Soviet time on wood fund is seen clearly.
Fig.4. Changes of the area of the Forest Fund, Republic of Kazakhstan, between 1950 and 1999.
Fig.5. Forest fire statistics of the Forest Fund, Republic of Kazakhstan, between 1950 and 1999. The statistics include number of fires and area burned as well as changing precipitation regimes for the arid-steppe zone during the same period.
Under the light green curve on Figure 4 the total forest area is given; under the dark green curve the afforested area of the country; red is the cumulative area of forest fires.
Forest fire statistics for the second half of the 20th Century in Kazakhstan is given in Figure 5. The pink curve shows changes of the annual area burned; the red curve shows the dynamics of the annual number of forest fires; the blue curve shows changes of the annual amount of precipitation for the arid-steppe zone. On this diagram it is visible, that the amount of fires is highly correlated with droughty years. The steady trend on magnification of number of fires together with a secular diminution of annual precipitation is seen.
At the same time, it is necessary to indicate, that the connection between area burned with the number of fires and the dryness are more complicated. We have identified two different types of years: Normal, when the average area of area burned is equal 5.4 ha, and anomalous, when the average area is equal 114 ha. The comparison of fire activities between 1954 and 1999 is shown in Figure 6 where the amount of fires for one year is shown on the abscissa , and the annual area burned the ordinate.
The lines of regression for normal and anomalous years determine the average burned area for each type of years. Between 1954 and 1999 only three years were anomalous: 1962, 1974 and 1997. The histogram of distribution of years on annual average area burned is shown in Figure 7. On the abscissa the logarithm of the average area burned in one year and on the ordinate the smoothed distribution of annually burned areas given. It is clearly visible that this distribution is not only two-modal, but that the modes are precisely divided. Thus, we deal with two principally different types of fire processes. We do not know yet the cause of the aggression of fire in anomalous years. It is impossible to explain it only by low precipitation, as these years are not so anomalous on dryness. The detection of the true reasons of this phenomena would allow to predict and a manage these catastrophic fire events.
Fig.6. Two branches of fire processes (explanation: see text)
Fig.7. Distribution of area burned by fires (explanation: see text)
Kazakh Agro-Forestry Research Institute
Boulat M. Moukanov
Director, Kazakh Agro-Forestry Research Institute
Kirov st., 58
Bourabai Research Institution
Johann G. Goldammer
Fir Ecology Research Group & Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC)
Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Biogeochemistry Department
c/o Freiburg University
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