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HOT TOPIC: Do fire risk assessments and complexity mix?

Integrating hazard, exposure and vulnerability into a risk analysis

Forest Fires in Indonesia in 2015 (The Jakarta Post)

In the last decades, a paradigm shift took place within the disaster risk research community. Scientists, as well as practitioners, realized that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. A hazardous event alone, like a flood or a drought, is not a disaster if it does not impact the livelihoods or nature in the area. The fifth assessment report of the IPCC integrates this notion into its framework on disaster risk and extreme weather events by defining a disaster as the result of an interaction between hazard exposure and vulnerability.

Disaster Risk Framework (IPCC, 2015)

During the last year, writing her master’s thesis at Space4Good, Johanna Callies tried to link this theory to the practices of forest fire management in Indonesia. Her goal was to integrate the three components of risk: hazard, exposure & vulnerability in a framework that assesses forest fire risk. To that end, she performed social and ecological exposure and vulnerability analyses of East-Kalimantan using GIS. This method enabled her to see the spatial distribution of risk across districts in the province.

The research is relevant to practitioners for multiple reasons. Integrated risk assessments can be used to grasp the complexity of hazards such as forest fires. Furthermore, geospatial risk assessments enable the prioritization of areas for policy interventions and can be used as monitoring and evaluation systems. Moreover, the visualization in maps is an effective communication tool.

By interviewing experts on forest fires in Southeast Asia and people living in the region, reading a lot of literature and sifting through newspapers, Johanna tried to gain an understanding of the complex interactions between causes and impacts of forest fires in East-Kalimantan. This proved to be extremely difficult because existing literature on forest fire risk is mainly based on case studies in the United States, Canada and Australia, where wildfires are also a huge problem. There is a difference in impacts though between these countries, and countries in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia. For example, the economic impact of fires in East Kalimantan is the loss of a main source of income, namely agricultural land, while in e.g. California the economic impact is the loss of and damage to residential homes. On a smaller scale, within East-Kalimantan, there are various ecological and social impacts, and even within social impacts, a range of impacts can be distinguished.

Left: California Fires in 2020 (CNET)

Right: Indonesia Fires in 2019 (GreenQueen)

The main point of discussion that was encountered during the research was the question of the primary and secondary impacts of forest fires. Primary impacts, such as a house burning down or the loss of agricultural land, were described as less relevant by local experts than secondary impacts like smoke haze which travels further than the fire itself, and therefore also impacts cities hundreds of miles away. Smoke haze can lead to respiratory problems and even death. These impacts should therefore be taken into account when assessing risk.

Another distinction that needs to be considered when developing a risk framework is the variation in the causes of forest fires. Again, there is a difference between countries, but this research shows that even within a province multiple distinct causes can be found. For example, small patches of forest are burned by individuals to accommodate their livelihoods by using them for agriculture, while very large patches are burned to expand existing palm oil plantations.

Left: slash-and-burn agriculture in South-East Asia (2019) (Derek E. Rothchild)

Right: palm-oil plantations on fire in Indonesia (2019) (Quartz)

The initial goal of this thesis was to develop a framework that simplifies a complex situation, in order to detect areas that need further (policy-)attention. Conducting the research strengthened Johanna’s conviction that including social and ecological factors are of huge importance in assessing risk and defining policy implications. However, she also discovered that trying to develop a global and all-encompassing framework leads to a more complex situation, instead of a simpler one. Therefore, future research should take place on a smaller scale, and investigate the possibility of participatory risk assessments to grasp the entire complexity and local context. Participatory GIS (PGIS) is already used by Space4Good to validate deforestation and fire alerts by local experts in the field. Extending this method to fire risk assessments will be crucial in addressing this hot topic.

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