Greater Hing'an Forests (in China) after fire in 1987



Greater Hing'an Forests after fire in 1987 *********************************************************************

by Liu Qi

"Located at the northernmost end of China, the Greater Hing'an Forests are beautiful, rich and pollution-free.In its thousands of square miles of boundary, rows of mountains are covered by immense forests...In summer, the Forests show greater charms when mountain breeze breathes,trees send forth delicate fragrance, streams murmur and flowers bloom."

This description about the Forests is written by a travel brochure. It represents a nice imagination of people who have never been there. As one of an journalists' group missioned to cover a Sino-German technical cooperation project, "Rehabilitation of the Burnt Areas in Greater Hing'an Forests", I rejoiced when in late May we visited a piece of forests that had not suffered fire devastation in 1987. Though simple roads as well as electrial wire network curve through the forests, though clouds of yellow dust were raised when vehicles passed by, tier upon tier of green shows quietly the enchantment of the forests. During the long journey across the vast forest, we,urban dwellers , asked for a stop frequently to take photos and have a greedy breath of 100 percent fresh air. We were immensely charmed when we cruised in the sea of green.

But, good time lasted only a half day in our 8-day trip to the Greater Hing'an Forests.

For the most of the time we spent there, we saw continuous hills with either low bushes of dreadful appearance or horrifying carbon black stumps, or groups of brown black trunks---the withered life that still stands upright to witness the fire disaster of May 6,1987.

Thought on the Fire Disaster

The extraordinarily serious fire that began on 6 May 1987 hurled down 100 more kilometers of forests in one night and destroyed forests of 1.2 million hectare s, in 31 tree farms in two counties in 28 days.

After nine years the bitterness is still well remembered by local people who turn pale at the simple mentioning of "6 May Fire". It is hard to imagine that the horrible "6 May Fire" made the railway melt, turned paper money in safes in to ashes and television sets buried into metal lumps. Piles of quality timber a long railway disappeared after the fire as the ashes had been blown away...

At Mohe County town, the disaster center, people set up a special memorial hall for the "6 May Fire". At another small town in the forest, Tuqiang, a middle-aged couple who run a grocery can tell us in lively detail the "doomsday " then:

At nightfall, people in the town saw an odd scene. Red light mixed with black smoke covered the sky and came nearer and nearer. "Fire tongues like giant red hawks skimmed over tree went even faster than train". It has been estimated that the maximum fire speed reached 50 kilometers per hour and the air current generated by the fire reached fresh gale scale. Local people had never experienced such a horrible fire. They had no idea of how to escape. Some people dived into cellars in their houses and were suffocated to death. The male members of one family went up hill to fight the fire, leaving nine females to death. Some people moved to a small river with their household belongings and even livestock and survived. The scene, as the couple described, was just like "people ran away when Japanese invaders came to the village in the forties ". Afterward, on every 6 May people at the town go to the small river to practise worship. "6 May" is also served as "A Day to Think of the Fire Disaster" in the forest area.

No more tall trees

People in the forests saw their output comparable to that of a township, their population to a county and the area to a province in richer south China. The vast virgin forests just like a green rise at the eastern part of the Euro-Asia Continent, have made invaluable contribution to ecology and environment for the area and even for the world.

The climate in the forest is cold. Annually frost-free season lasts only 90-100 days. This makes trees there grow very slow. A tree from seedling to valuable timber normally call for one century or more.

Before "6 May Fire", there are trees, 20-30 meters high, everywhere. The fire has burned one-sixth of the total forest stands and left only low bushes. The offerings of Nature, which have accumulated in thousands of years, were destroyed in one moment by human beings themselves.

The losts of wildlife in the forest area was also significant. People in the fo rests have long been pride of the wildlifes in the forests. Nowadays, however, this abundance and harmony between human being and wildlife is but a by-gone dream.

The degeneration of the ecological system in the forests have also brought about rare natural disasters. 1990 broad-leaf pine caterpillar disaster spread to an area of 1 million hectares. The 1991 extraordinary flood inundated two-third of Tahe township of Tahe County with an average water level of two meters. In 1994, there came another drought, which made young growths dead on a large scale. Five million 3-4 year-old trees had been destroyed in this disaster.

Besides, environmental problems like global warming makes the forest ecology harder to recove. Decades ago, there used to have a heavy snow in May to cover dry leaves on the ground, and in June there used to come another heavy rain, which allowed the forests to tide over the dangerous period of fire in Spring. But, the May snow here has become more and more rare. Though there have no significant fire disaster after Fire'87 the forest grounds are covered with thick fallen leaves, which makes it more and more likely to have another big fire. In the forest area, we saw fire warning slogens everythere. A regular cordon is placed during the dangerous period of fire in Spring and Autumn.

Easy to destroy, hard to rebuild

Green Great Hing'an Forests have safeguarded the earth faithfully for thousands of years. Under the pressure of economic demand, the government had initiated three campaigns of development in the forests after 1949. The first two in 1955 and 1958 had little success and the third endeavor launched in 1964 had achieve d great results. Humansbegan to resettle in the forests at last. A place with several tents accommodating the pioneers for forest development in 1964 have expanded as a capital city of the forest area, Jiagedaqi, which means "A place which has pinus sylvestris" in the language of Erogen nationality, the dwellers in the forests. In the process, the vitality of the forests had been taken away little by little as more and more old trees were cut down.

For several decades, the only reason of people's presence in the forests is tree-cutting. Under this practice, one hill after another, with heavy tree coverage, became nude.

Only in the recent 10 or more years especially after Fire'87 disaster, people became aware of the damage they impose on the forests, and their terrible destruction to the forest ecology. In the 1990's, tree cutting is controlled at 30 percent. It is believed that in this way the forests are capable of self-recovery and have little influence on forest ecology.

It is said that, there is an old "model worker" in the forests who had enjoyed his fame for the huge amount of trees cut. In recent years, though in his 80's, he vowed to plant the same amount of trees he had cut and was granted new honours by the local authority.

It is easy to cut down trees, but it is hard to plant and grow trees. As the time for a tree to grow calls for centuries, how can the human beings turn the thousands of bare hills into green in several years? A Fire'87 burned 1 million hectares...

According to a schedule of rehabilitation of the burnt areas, the local authority plans to rejuvenate the forests in three phases in nine years. 17 percent will be done by man and the remaining is left to nature itself. It is told by the local authority that after nine years' endeavor 180,000 hectares of young growths have been set up. Nevertheless, the remaining area is far too gigantic a job for the human beings.

To conduct large-scale rehabilitation under harsh climate and fragile ecology, the technical establishment in the forests can not stand equal to the challenge . The local authorities try to seek outside assistance for practical technologies of a broad spectrum, from seedlings growing to youth growth management, in which the Sino-German technical project launched in 1993 could serve as a model.

Few foreigners come into the forests

The Germans, with a hawk nose, blue eyes and hay hair other than black, brought people in the small forest town Tuqiang with lasting curiosity and excitement.

Those foreigners complained, their expectation to experience the unique folk characters of a Chinese small town in the depth of the forests was spoiled by the excessive curiosity of local Chinese. Wherever they went, there surely were lots of eyes on them. To people in the town, "we are animals rarer than dinosaurs". Their only choice to spend their spare time was to stay at the well-equipped apartments.

What can be done in the apartment?

"Read books," humourous Mr. Rudolf Reichwein, a tree-farm owner in Germany, answered while he raised up his hands over his head, "The head will grows horns if you don't read books for a long time." In robust health, Mr. Reichwein looked full of energy, liked to make fun. He often stretched his neck and imitated the cry-out of a woman vendor in the town,"Mai-dou-fu-lou------ "(sell bean curd). In the eyes of his Chinese counterparts, he is a funny fellow.

Besides Mr. Reichwein, we met two other Germans. Mr. Juliusdurst, the coordinator of German experts group in the project, is head of an administrative agency for a forest area. Slim Dr.Michael Mussong, has also participated in other projects in Shanxi Province and at an island on the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Mussong likes to play Chinese chess, often have hot fights with a waiter at the apartment building.

The three came to executive the Sino-German technical cooperation project, "Rehabilitation of the burnt areas in Great Hing'an Forests area".

They came to China with a strict and realistic approach, a world-famous German spirit. Working together with their Chinese counterparts, first of all, they studied 81 sample spots across the burnt area and got well-presented, first-hand information. They applied the unique practice of GTZ (German Agency for Technical Cooperation), underlined several items as of the primary importance, such as breeding enough quality seedlings, adopting practical new technologies for rehabilitation and enhancing the quality of Chinese professionals. Afterwards they worked out annual or seasonal schedules, accurately demonstrated the locations and area for experiments, seedlings, tools, equipment and the quantity of human resource, listed in detail comparative experiments for different seedlings, seasons and tools. Almost every local expert and official we met expressed their admiration for the German experts.

The three German experts said that an important reason for their coming is the challenge they had never faced before. They hoped to enrich their professional experience through this project in the forest area, a place with harsh climate and too large area needed to rehabilitate. No example can be borrowed across the world.

Also, it's another pleasure for them to go to a little inn in town to have cups of beer occasionally, they added.

Germany is the largest bilateral supporter to China in forest industry. At the very beginning of Fire'87 in the Great Hing'an Forests, the country offered cash assistance of 30 million Deutch marks. Aimed to explore a quick and effect ive way of rehabilitating the burnt area from Germany with advanced forest technology and equipment, the two countries began to initiate the Sino- German technical cooperation project in the autumn of 1993 for 8-10 years. GTZ ( German Agency for Technical Cooperation ) and the Ministry of Forest Industry of China were charged to execute the project.

In 1988 a fire in the Yellow Stone National Park in the United States burned 1 million hectares of forests. Americans set a 100-year timetable to recover the burnt area. In China, however, German and Chinese experts expected to shorten the time to about 50 years by a comprehensive approach.

Financed by two million Deutch marks of free grant from Germany, the first phase of the project has been accomplished this year. 9 German experts, 8 Chinese experts and 17 technical assistants have participated in this phase of work and achieved lots of valuable results in the past three years. For the second phase the German government will put in another two million marks. At the end of our visit to the Great Hing'an Forests, a letter of intent for the second phase was signed by experts of the two countries.

"Lofty Great Hing'an, the green forests, are vast in territory and rich in natural resources, which make you come to appreciate the greatness of Nature... warmly welcome guests all around the world, please come to have a visit."

The travel brochure have offered warmhearted invitation to visitors. I hope, under the continuous endeavor of local people along with international assistance, the beauty of the forests could be restored. By then, there surely will be more and more visitors to share magnificant nature in the vast forest area. (the end)

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