Employees plant trees at a tree farm in Wuerqihan forest bureau in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. They are equipped with firefighting devices. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

Employees plant trees at a tree farm in Wuerqihan forest bureau in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. They are equipped with firefighting devices. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

Employees plant trees at a tree farm in Wuerqihan forest bureau in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. They are equipped with firefighting devices. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

In Wuerqihan, fire is a constant menace.

Recently, forest department employees have seldom been able to see their colleagues, as most of them are garrisoned in the mountains, working to make sure the forest is safe from potential fire. Some of them have to stay in the mountains for three months. 

The fire prevention period lasts three seasons here. Wuerqihan is a forest bureau in the Greater Khingan, home to 48,100 hectares of forest. It is one of the 19 branch forest bureaus under the state-owned forest administration bureau in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

This spring, people working in the forests of Greater Khingan are more nervous than usual, as they are facing harsher conditions for preventing fire.

Extraordinary weather, including higher temperatures and less rainfall, has brought great challenges to the people guarding the forests. At the same time, the firefighting work is facing problems such as aging personnel.

The forest management department in Inner Mongolia has vowed to face its challenges head-on.

Extreme conditions

“We are affected by El Nino this year,” Zhu Gang, captain of the Wuerqihan forest firefighter team, told the Global Times. “Every 10 years, we meet a tough year in fire prevention.”

There was 85.6 percent less rainfall than last year, the lowest on record, but temperatures were 2.9 to 6.5 C higher, according to a statement the state-owned forest administration of Inner Mongolia sent to the Global Times in late April. There are 83,700 square kilometers of forest in the Greater Khingan Mountains in Inner Mongolia, covering 78.39 percent of the entire area.

This year, the fire prevention period started 10 days earlier than usual, on March 5.

The situation resembled the “May 6 fire” in Northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province in 1987, said the statement. The 1987 fire destroyed 17,000 square kilometers of forests in China and Russia and killed 211 people.

Moreover, fire prevention and suppression work faces the hardest challenge ever due to a number of adverse factors, such as the large range of forests, excessive amounts of fuel loads and aging firefighters, according to the statement from the administration. 

On April 17, a fire from Russia entered the national border and hit Hulun Buir’s Old Barag Banner, 170 kilometers from Wuerqihan. Even though the fire was put out after three days, it left the people in the Greater Khingan Mountain forests on edge.

In another incident, 30 people, including 27 firefighters and three locals, lost their lives fighting the fire in Muli, Sichuan’s Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in early April, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Ready for action

Outside Zhu’s office in the team’s headquarters in Wuerqihan township, a dozen or so trucks are parked in the yard, waiting for an order that could come at any minute to bring firefighters and resources into the mountains.

Backpacks are already packed and on display in storage. Even seasoning that can serve a 100-man team for three days have been distributed into bottles.

Among the 300 professional firefighters in the Wuerqihan team, 100 are now garrisoned in forests in the mountains, and the remaining 200 are training in headquarters, ready to act at any second.

In addition to those 300, the Wuerqihan bureau has 900 more firefighters in its tree farms. Those who work in the farms plant trees every day, but when the fires come, they turn themselves into firefighters.

In addition to the firefighters, employees and officials at the bureau are requested to stay in the forests. Every department, even those for publicity and research, has a region that it is responsible for.

Some women with young children serve as fire patrols at locations close to the township, and others have to live in mountains for days.

In the whole Greater Khingan region of Inner Mongolia, the bureau has dispatched 4,684 firefighters to stay in forests. Employees have signed 13,986 responsibility statements, vowing to protect the forests from fire.

Forest life

Wuerqihan people are confident about their knowledge in dealing with mountain fires, as it has been gained at a high price.

Even though firefighter Zhang Jun, 48, has a house just a few kilometers away, he and other members are usually not allowed to leave the headquarters.

When garrisoned in forests, life is more difficult. Before this year, there were no cell phone signals, and electricity was also very limited.

“It is very boring up in the forest. We just look at each other, play poker and sleep very early,” Zhang said. “I often miss my family and my children.”

Located in northern China, the temperature in Wuerqihan reaches -40 C in winter. Even in April, it was still as low as 0 C at night.

In order to prevent fire, the firefighters are not allowed to use heating. The cabins they live in are often colder than the outside.

“Sometimes we experience four seasons in one day,” Zhang said. Zhang Jun said that before he is dispatched to the forest, he prepares food and medicine for his parents.

When they are called to fight the fires, the team members might not sleep for days.

“Once I worked three days in a row and was so exhausted I fell asleep beside the fire area. Suddenly I was woken up by burning. My hair and eyebrows were all burned,” Zhang said.

Since 2013, the team has not recruited any new members. The average age of the members is around 50.

“We hate sunny days here,” Zhu, the captain joked.

“On rainy days, the forests are not likely to catch fire,” he said. “It’s a psychological problem you get after living in a forest area for so long.”

Pride in their work

The forest is the Greater Khingan people’s greatest wealth.

Even though life in Wuerqihan is far from comfortable, the firefighters and employees of the forest bureau are proud of what they do.

In recent years, the bureau has been importing more advanced equipment to better safeguard the forests. For instance, they have been using drones to monitor the fire situation.

The Wuerqihan people are eagerly awaiting the end of the spring fire prevention period. However, after spring, residents have to face two more in summer and autumn.