Activities  Far East Russia

The context

In 1998 natural hazards of unusual strenght stroke the planet: hurricane Mitch and other large tropical cyclones, a powerful El Nino event caused significant floods in Peru as well as droughts in Indonesia, Central America and Brazil leading to devastating fires. In middle of this flurry of disasters, little place was left in the media for the fires in Far East Russia, although they were discribed at the time by UNDAC Team (United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination) as a "large scale emergency of international significance".

Geographical situation

The Khabarovsk Krai, located in the Far East of the country, is one of the largest territories in Russia. The 1.6 millions inhabitants over 788.600 km2 (density around 2 pers./km2) includes 25 indigenous nations. The natural habitat is of world importance: 120.000 rivers, 55.000 lakes containing some 130 species of fish. The region hosts two sites registered by the Ramsar convention on internationally important Wetlands. It is also home of several endangered species registered on the IUCN red book the most significant being the Amur Tiger.

The causes

Usually the region has a warm but humid summer, but 1998 saw a severe drought. The lack of precipitation, however, would not have lead in such devastating fires without the economical crisis that hit Russia. Due to lack of financial resources for fuel, spare parts and pilot salaries, the aerial surveillance decrease from 3 times a day to once a week. If fires were detected in early stages, they could be extinguished, this is not the case for fires with a front long up to 50 km.

More than 1000 fires and 6 months of activity

Close view from NOAA/AVHRR-14 of 22 Sept. 1998 (color composite, bands 1,2 and 3) shows the large area affected by on-going fires (in red) and smoke plume (blue haze) in eastern Russia and on the island of Sakhalin, some fires affected up to 350km2.

The fires started in May and lasted until October 1998, over the season 1028 fires were recorded. A state of Emergency was declared on 17th July. At the height of the emergency, 18 enormous fires were registered, each one affecting between 200 and 350 km2. At one point, the authorities were trying to deal with 94 fires simultaneously. Smoke streiched over more than 1000 km, from Japan to north of east Siberia.
The fires were 85% from human origins, people who have been forced by the economic situation in the country to forage more deeply in the wood areas, for hunting, fishing and collection of forest products. The remaining fires are believed to be initiated by lightning strikes.

Health and human impacts

One million people were affected during weeks by smoke containing small particules and carbon monoxide (CO), long terms impacts on health are unknown. The two largest cities, Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur, repectively 600'000 and 300.000 inhabitants, were both affected by high pollution levels. According to regional authorities the level of carbon monoxide reached between 3-13 times the Maximum Permissible Concentration (MPC), over a period of weeks, with occasional levels reaching as high as 24 times MPC.

Environmental impacts

The impacts on the environment are both global and local. The massive fires destroyed 20.000 km2 of forest thus destroying habitat of birds and mammals as well as causing air and water pollution. A significant amount of CO2 was released, gas known for its contribution to global warming, but locally the soot from the fires has affected this rich river system hosting 130 different fish species. The region includes two wetlands, Lakes Bolon and Oudyl, of international importance registered under the Ramsar Convention. The affected area is also the habitat of several endangered species registered on IUCN Red list, among them the Amur Tiger, who's habitat has been largely destroyed and fires also affected the tigers's main prey species: the wild boar.

Aerial view of forest destruction

Economical and social impacts

The village of Gorki, on Sakhalin Island was totally destroyed by the fire on 20th September. 598 people were made homelesss.The fires have affected large areas of high-quality woodland. 20'000 km2 were damaged by the fires in both Sakhalin island and Khabarovsk Krai. The Russian Far East has lost around 15 millions m3 of timber (a normal year production is 4.5 million m3). A relatively large proportion Krai population is from aborigine origin and makes a living from the land. They rely heavily on hunting and fishing. 25 indigenous nations (some 19 thousand people) have reportedly been affected, as a result of a serious damage caused by fires to their natural habitat.


Lake and rivers
Landsat image
Fires in 1998 as detected by ATSR

This Landsat 7 ETM+ image from August 2000 transformed using principal component analysis processing (RGB 3,2,5) depicts only a portion of the impacts from the 1998 fires. 16 images would have been necessary to cover the whole area affected, Forested areas can be seen in green, non-forest areas mostly resulting from fires can be seen in red. In the whole region, the 1998 fires destroyed 20000 km2 of forest.

Poster Quick Look

Research conducted by: Pascal Peduzzi, GRID-Europe