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Fire in the forest! What to do?

Von Michael Welling and Tanja Sanders | 12.05.2021

WO Institute of Forest Ecosystems

The risk of forest fires is high again this year. There is a lot of dry wood in the forest and, as the 2021 Forest Condition Survey shows, the trees are severely affected by the drought of recent years. What you can do personally if you discover a fire.

The risk of forest fires is high again on this year. There is a lot of dry wood in the forest and the trees are, according to the Forest Condition Survey 2021, severely attacked by the drought of the past years. Ideal conditions for forest fires. In recent years, May and July in particular have been the months with the most forest fires. Find out what you can do personally if you discover a fire.

It burns, it smokes or glows in the forest? Whether you see open fire, glowing or smoldering material, or simply smoke: Don’t hesitate to dial 112! You can reach the fire department and rescue service throughout Germany by dialing this number.

  • State your name and describe the location as precisely as possible.
  • If possible, go to a rescue point (see below) to brief the emergency services from there on the damage area.
  • Give your mobile number to the control centre and make yourself available for any queries.

Do not put yourself in danger. Move away from the fire site and pay attention to the wind direction – a forest fire can spread quickly in windy and particularly dry conditions.

Forest rescue points are defined locations in the forest that use coordinates to describe meeting points. You can recognize rescue points by boards in the entrance area of forests. They make it easier to indicate your own location in case of accidents or fires. The rescue control center can assign the number on the board, and medical staff or firefighters can find their way to the scene of the accident more quickly.

The rescue point files can be downloaded centrally at With the free app "Hilfe im Wald" (for Android and iOS), the respective rescue points (now more than 50,000) can also be easily found via GPS using a smartphone.

Forest fires can have very different causes; intent or negligence are often involved:

  • Arson
  • Cigarettes: from March 1 to October 31 (in Saxony-Anhalt from February 15 to October 15), smoking is prohibited in the forest. In the German states of Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony and Thuringia, smoking is even banned all year round.
  • Campfires and barbecues in the forest
  • hot catalytic converters from cars or motorcycles parked in the forest or at the edge of the forest
  • flying sparks from trains or fast rotating machine parts of forestry or agricultural machines
  • spontaneous combustion (e.g. by old phosphorus ammunition or rotting hay)
  • in rare cases also lightning strike

Every year, the Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food (BLE) compiles data on forest fire frequency and forest fire area in Germany. According to this data, there have been an average of around 800 forest fires per year over the past ten years. Most forest fires occur in May and July. Compared to other German states, Brandenburg is particularly susceptible to forest fires because of its rapidly drying, sandy soils and easily combustible pine forests.

In some years, damage caused by forest fires can easily amount to one or more million euros, such as in 2000, 2003, 2008, 2010, 2018 and 2019. In 2020, forest fires also caused high damage, even though the forest fire area of 368 hectares was significantly smaller than in the two previous years.

Forest fires usually start as ground fires. It can start when there is a lot of organic material such as leaves and dead wood on the ground. A ground fire is still fairly easy to fight, but can spread quickly through undergrowth and dry vegetation.

If a ground fire grows into a wildfire, it can spread to trunks - especially in conifer stands.

A wildfire can become a full fire, resulting in rapid spread of flames. The full fire includes ground vegetation, the trunk, and the crown of the tree. Dry needles cause the crowns to ignite in an extremely massive manner, contributing to accelerated and extensive spread.

In the case of a full fire, the firefighting operation is dangerous and difficult to bring under control. The fire intensity is so high that even wider paths can be jumped by the fire. It is difficult to prevent spread. A full fire can often only be successfully fought with support from the air.

The German Weather Service (Deutscher Wetterdienst; DWD) publishes the so-called forest fire hazard index (Waldbrandgefahrenindex) on its website on a daily basis. This shows on a map how high the forest fire danger is in the individual regions of Germany from a meteorological point of view.

The danger level is divided into five stages:

Level 1very low danger
Level 2low danger
Level 3medium danger
Level 4high danger
Level 5very high danger

As a further development of the forest fire hazard index, the Thünen Institute of Forest Ecosystems is creating a collection of data on forest fire history in the ErWiN collaborative project to better understand forest fire causes and dynamics. The collaborative project is developing maps (e.g., below) that consider relevant forest structure parameters in addition to weather-based factors.

A few years ago, the Thünen Institute of Forest Ecosystems, together with the Humboldt University of Berlin, developed a system for early detection of forest fires. The core of the system is a hydrogen sensor. When organic material burns, the first thing that is produced is hydrogen. If the hydrogen concentration in the air exceeds a certain threshold, the sensor reports the possible fire to a control center. In this way, a smoldering fire can be detected before there is an open flame. Valuable time is saved.

More information is available from the Thünen project INPRIWA. In an interview in the magazine "Wissenschaft erleben, 2019/1" Jürgen Müller (Thünen Institute) and Michael Luthardt (State Competence Center for Forestry) talk about the novel forest fire sensor and the challenges following the 2018 forest fires (in German).

What impact did the three consecutive dry summers of 2018, 2019 and 2020 have on forest vitality - in addition to forest fires? How can forests adapt to climate change? More information here.

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