Mongolian Steppe Ablaze
Squall 13, Summer 1996, pg. 54.
NEARLY 300 FIRES have been recorded blazing across the Mongolian steppe in the past few months. At the latest count 26 people have been killed, over 60 badly burned.
Generations of livestock have been wiped out and as much as a quarter of Mongolia’s forests have been lost. The Mongolian Government estimates around $1.9b of environmental damage.
It is estimated that hundreds of nomadic families are now homeless, having lost their traditional round-tent homes. Many are now sleeping in the open, where temperatures fall as low as -10 even in May/June.
Mr Gulgou, Commercial Attache at the Mongolian Embassy in London, told Squall: ‘This was a major disaster for Mongolia. There are still eight fires burning out of control; 94 are still burning but these are under control.”
The fires are attributed to small camp fires being left alight in the late summer and autumn months. Mr Gulgou explains: “It is very big territory and very dry at this time so its very easy to start a fire.” On the windswept steppe these quickly rage out of control.
This year the rains came too late to help put out the annual fires.
Communication systems within the steppe are generally poor and many phone lines have been brought down in the fires leaving hundreds with no way of contacting help.
Mongolia is about the size of Western Europe and it is the vast bleakness of the steppe across which fire spreads at astonishing speed which leads to similar devastation every year. Local relief operations do their best to move people and livestock to safe areas but as Mr Gulgou points out “massive mobilisation of fire-fighters and equipment is needed. 60,000 people were recruited to help fight these fires. This cannot be done without outside help.”
Mr Gulgou says the Mongolian Government is “producing information warning people how to handle fire in the open air but how quickly fires spread is very dependent on weather conditions.”
Ultimately environmental experts suggest that an efficient warning system to alert fire and relief services is essential if this spark of human carelessness is to be prevented from turning into an annual blaze of misery and environmental destruction.