Spotting Flames in the Forests of Northeastern China
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2017-10-10 09:13:49

HEILONGJIANG, Northeast China — Cao Zhiguo puts down his binoculars and casts his gaze over the forest below. From his 28-meter-high watchtower made of sheet iron, he scans the area around him, looking for signs of a fire.

“A mere spark is enough to set a huge area ablaze,” says the 53-year-old fire lookout from Mohe County in Daxing’anling Prefecture.

Cao’s “office” is one of the 326 observation towers scattered throughout the Greater Hinggan Mountains, volcanic formations that stretch from northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to the country’s northeast. Each tower is separated by only 10 kilometers to avoid blind spots. Working in pairs, the lookouts are assigned watchtowers in rotating shifts. During the day, they watch over the vast expanse of forest, while at night, they sleep in the small cabins located at the foot of each tower, none of which have electricity.

Fire lookouts in Daxing’anling, Heilongjiang province, endure harsh conditions to protect the area’s forests from fire. By Diao Fanchao, Zheng Chaoyuan, and Zhang Yanliang/Sixth Tone

These lookouts start work on the mountain range in mid-March each year and leave around November, when snow typically blankets the area. In the spring and fall, the Greater Hinggan Mountains are hot and dry, creating the perfect conditions for fires.

It was 30 years ago, in May 1987, that a devastating and deadly inferno broke out at the foot of the northern part of the range. The fire burned for 28 days, claimed 211 lives, injured 266 people, left more than 56,000 homeless, and engulfed 13,300 square kilometers of land — nearly the size of Beijing. It was the deadliest forest fire since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.

A mere spark is enough to set a huge area ablaze.

“It was so awful. In just one night, entire homes were destroyed. Some young folks who had only just made a home for themselves huddled together, crying,” Cao recalls.

Following that great disaster, efforts were made to improve fire prevention in the mountains. Several local branches of the State Forestry Administration in Mohe County set up specific departments for fire prevention. Cao joined and, after putting out fires for two years, transferred to a post as a lookout in the watchtowers.

When Cao sees a fire or smoke, he uses a compass to determine the location of the blaze in relation to his tower and reports it to the fire prevention office headquarters using a walkie-talkie. In the almost three decades he has spent in the watchtowers, he has stopped many fires from spreading.

Cao last reported a fire in 2010. “I was in Tower No. 211. At a bearing of 220 degrees, about 15 to 16 kilometers away, I could see a column of smoke,” he recalls.

Cao Zhiguo demonstrates how to use a compass to locate a fire from his watchtower in the Greater Hinggan Mountains, Mohe County, Heilongjiang province, April 21, 2017. Zhang Yanliang/Sixth Tone

Cao Zhiguo demonstrates how to use a compass to locate a fire from his watchtower in the Greater Hinggan Mountains, Mohe County, Heilongjiang province, April 21, 2017. Zhang Yanliang/Sixth Tone

The government’s development plans for the area include provisions to protect the mountain forests, which are vital for water and soil conservation, flood regulation, protection of biodiversity, and guarding against wind and sandstorms. They are also an important source of timber.

Yao Zhanjun, the director of a local forestry bureau in Mohe County, says that thousands of workers were sent to the mountains to fell dead trees after the massive fire. The number of replanted trees failed to match the number that had been cut down, leading to a serious loss of resources. “The fire left nothing but an endless expanse of charred earth. Destruction was everywhere you looked. There wasn’t a hint of green in the mountains,” Yao recalls. “It was only then that we understood the importance of environmental protection.”

The fire left nothing but an endless expanse of charred earth. Destruction was everywhere you looked.

Stricter regulations were put in place to protect the forest, including a ban on smoking outdoors, violation of which can incur hefty fines and even imprisonment. Cao used to enjoy fireworks but has long refrained from setting them off, “even during the Spring Festival,” he says.

In the last few years, the number of fires caused by humans has decreased, partly thanks to the regulations and the work of the fire lookouts. Lightning is now the greatest threat to the forest — and to the lookouts.

Cao says he once saw a lightning bolt strike a watchtower and flow from the deck all the way to the ground. When lightning strikes, lookouts report the position of the bolt to headquarters and then climb down the towers to seek shelter.

Since 2014, commercial logging has been banned in the mountain range, and tens of thousands of workers who were forced to put down their axes and saws have since been transferred to posts in environmental conservation. Due to the range’s harsh climate, however, it will take 80 to 100 years for the forest to regrow to the point where forest workers can sustainably fell trees again, Cao says. “If we don’t make efforts to prevent fires, another blaze like the one that occurred in 1987 could reduce the entire range to a wasteland,” he adds.

Fire lookouts drive through the Greater Hinggan Mountains, Mohe County, Heilongjiang province, April 21, 2017. Zhang Yanliang/Sixth Tone

Fire lookouts drive through the Greater Hinggan Mountains, Mohe County, Heilongjiang province, April 21, 2017. Zhang Yanliang/Sixth Tone

Cao’s home is located about 20 kilometers from his watchtower. His wife used to visit him in the tower, and they would gaze out upon the sea of trees below. While he is still relatively spry for his age, his wife was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year, and his days are filled with worry.

Cao is also concerned about future generations of lookouts. Most members of the region’s fire prevention taskforce are in their 50s. Salaries are low, and young people aren’t interested in spending their days in watchtowers, far from civilization and without internet or any means of communication with the outside world, Cao explains. In seven years, Cao says, his career as a fire lookout will come to an end. “Taking care of this expanse of forest is my life’s work,” he says. “I’ll keep doing it until the day I retire.”

A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Li You and Denise Hruby.

(Header image: A fire lookout stares at the forest in the Greater Hinggan Mountains, Mohe County, Heilongjiang province, April 21, 2017. Zhang Yanliang/Sixth Tone)