During the month of May in 1987, one of the largest and most damaging wildfires on record globally, The Black Dragon Fire (Heilongjiang) in China reduced about 1/5th of Chinese coniferous forests by more than 3 million acres in the Heilongjiang Province to ash and burnt stumps and claimed at least 200 lives. The fire started on May 6th on a hot dry day impacted by high winds in the Black Dragon River area of China. On the Russian side another 3 wildfires may have impacted up to 15 million acres. In Russia the river is called the Amur River.
There is no record of a fire of this magnitude in the recorded history of 24 dynasties in China. There was concern that the magnitude of the fire transformed continental climatic conditions contributing to the desertification of Northwest China. According to recorded eye witness accounts of the fire in The Great Black Dragon Fire: A Chinese Inferno by Harrison E. Salisbury, the fire was like “a red sea wave. It sounded like an artillery barrage. It was the sound of terror. A tornado of fire.” One young forester he quoted said; “Well, I guess you could say it sounded like the roar of a dragon.” The cause of the fire was improper brush cutting by a newly hired inexperienced worker, though any spark would have started the fire with the lack of rain, heat and high winds in this area which had frequently experienced fires, though not of this magnitude.
A colleague of mine at NFPA, Wenting Wang, told me that as a child lessons learned from the fire were taught to her in school in China. She said, “However, the Chinese government had learnt a lesson from the fire. The new completed system was set up to recover the forest. Increased land has been fenced off for forestation. The population in forest and timber area has been decentralized and reduced substantially after the fire. A big progress has been made in reforesting formerly cultivated land. The NFPP (Natural Forest Protective Project) was started in 1998. After the effort of 20 years, the ecosystem has been restored. “ She also told me that a memorial museum was built in 1988 to show the process of the fire and the progress people have been made after the fire.
We can all learn a lesson from this fire and others, to take care doing the right thing the right way and implementing Firewise principles to protect our properties and communities. Wildfires can occur anywhere in the United States. A colleague shared an article about the wildfire potential in Massachusetts and lessons learned from the Miles Standish State Forest Fire 61 years ago this week. We can take action that makes a difference.