Increased damage from fires in logged forests during droughts caused by El Niño

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In 1997–98, fires associated with an exceptional drought caused by the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) devastated large areas of tropical rain forests worldwide. Evidence suggests that in tropical rainforest environments selective logging may lead to an increased susceptibility of forests to fire1,2,3,4. We investigated whether this was true in the Indonesian fires, the largest fire disaster ever observed5,6. We performed a multiscale analysis using coarse- and high-resolution optical and radar satellite imagery assisted by ground and aerial surveys to assess the extent of the fire-damaged area and the effect on vegetation in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. A total of 5.2 ± 0.3 million hectares including 2.6 million hectares of forest was burned with varying degrees of damage. Forest fires primarily affected recently logged forests; primary forests or those logged long ago were less affected. These results support the hypothesis of positive feedback between logging and fire occurrence4. The fires severely damaged the remaining forests and significantly increased the risk of recurrent fire disasters by leaving huge amounts of dead flammable wood.

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Figure 1: Fire occurrence and fire impact in 1997/98 in East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia.
Figure 2: ERS SAR-derived fire damage for different land cover, derived from TM as a percentage of the total area of each land cover.
Figure 3: Fire impact measured as volume of living and dead trees in burned areas logged at different times in the past.
Figure 4: Fire impact within 1,000 m of logging roads.


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This research was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation and supported by the Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and Estate Crops, the European Space Agency (ERS European Remote Sensing Satellite 3.ERS Announcement of Opportunities), the Joint Research Centre (Space Applications Institute) and the Global Fire Monitoring Centre (Max Planck Institute for Chemistry). We gratefully acknowledge helpful comments by C. N. David and P. T. L. Ganeca for co-operating with ground survey data collection and all staff members of the participating institutions.

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Correspondence to F. Siegert.

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