Black Dragon Fire

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The Black Dragon Fire was a massive wildfire that occurred in China and the Soviet Union during May 1987. It was one of the largest wildfires ever to occur, and the largest to strike China in over 300 years. Over two hundred died in the fires and hundreds more were injured. The fire ended up destroying 18 million acres of forest, including one sixth of China's entire timber reserves.[1][2]

The Fire[edit]

The fire originated in the coniferous Da Hinggan forests located in the Greater Khingan Range, a mountain range in northeastern China. In 1987, the area surrounding the Amur River in the region had been unusually hot and was experiencing a drought, leading to an overabundance of parched vegetation.[3][2] These conditions were ideal for a large wildfire to occur. Because the area was sparsely populated at the time, the exact cause of the fire was not very clear at first; any small ignition could have turned into a major firestorm in the conditions present. Later and widely believed Chinese reports state that the fire was started "when an untrained 18-year-old worker accidentally ignited gas spilled from his brush cutter."[4] According to Harrison Salisbury, the roots of the disaster lay in excessive cutting down of trees without any effort to let the forest regrow, which triggered multiple fires in the region.[4] Whatever the causes were, the resulting firestorm quickly gained momentum, fueled by high winds in the region. Workers reported their truck engines stopping as the fire deprived the oxygen supply in the air as well as burning projectiles raining down on them ahead of the fire.[4] Two hundred people were reported dead or missing, and a further 250 were injured by the fire.[2] In addition, 33,000 Chinese were made homeless.[5]


Although both countries were affected heavily by the fire, China and the Soviet Union responded very differently. China, despite its shortage of advanced firefighting equipment, sent over 60,000 soldiers and workers to try and put out the fire.[4] Because the forest was a major source of wood for China as well as the fact that it was close to the Gobi desert and thus a factor in desertification in northern China, China spent much effort on extinguishing the flames. The Soviets, on the other hand, simply let the fire burn out on its side of the border because its vast timber reserves were not seriously threatened by the fire.[2] When the fire finally stopped over a month later, the differences in responses were clear: The Soviet Union had lost over 15 million acres of forest, while China had lost only 3 million (though it was more devastated economically).[1][3][4]

In the aftermath, China punished individuals for causing the fire; the aforementioned 18-year-old worker, along with his employer, were jailed. The forestry minister was fired. In addition, a local fire chief who saved his house and left the rest of his town to burn was sentenced to four years in prison.[4] In the Soviet Union, despite Glasnost, the public was never informed of the huge disaster.[3]

The lessons learned from the Black Dragon fire helped to improve response to wildfires throughout the world, as well as demonstrating the impact that governments can have on the environment. The effect that the fire had on the environment in the region generated new found concern and speculation about the future about the forest's ecology.[1]


  1. ^ a b c China, Harrison E. Salisbury; Harrison E. Salisbury, Former Editor Of The Op-ed Page, Is Author Of A. Forthcoming Book On The Black Dragon Fire In (1988-10-01). "The Breath of the Black Dragon in Russia and China". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-27. 
  2. ^ a b c d "The Great 1987 Black Dragon Fire — GEOL 105 Natural Hazards". Retrieved 2015-11-27. 
  3. ^ a b c "Today in Wildfire History: 1987 Black Dragon Fire kills 200 on the way to charring 18 million acres in China and Russia | Flash Fuels". Retrieved 2015-11-27. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f "The Fiery Breath Of Black Dragon". tribunedigital-chicagotribune. Retrieved 2015-11-27. 
  5. ^ "The Great Black Dragon Fire: a Chinese Inferno. | HighBeam Business: Arrive Prepared". Retrieved 2015-11-27.