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For the MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE (USA) freelance journalist HOWARD SMITH sums up Harrison Salisbury's account of cataclysmic forest fires in Northern China.

LAST Summer (1987) Yellowstone's fires were widely regarded as conflagration unparalleled in recent times. Few realised that in the summer of 1987 a fire six times as extensive raged through 6,400 square miles of Greater Higgnan Forest in Manchurian China.

The Chinese fires destroyed forests equivalent in area to the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. At the same time still greater fires burned out of control through adjacent regions north of the Sino-Soviet border. Finally the fires destroyed 3 million acres of Higgnan's conifers and beyond the Amur or 'Black Dragon' River, 15 million acres of Soviet forestland. The toll was immense. One-fifth of China's entire timber reserve went up in smoke, 34,000 forest workers and their families were left temporarily homeless and an estimated 220 died. Total damage was put at $5US billion.

For Chinese journalists and broadcasters the great fire became an unprecedented media event. At the same time, foreign reporters were steadfastly denied access to the area. Limited Western attention came only as a result of satellite evidence and sporadic reports by the New York Times and the BBC.

Fortunately much of what occurred is at last thoroughly examined and analysed. Peripatetic journalist Harrison Salisbury brings veteran documenting skills to an account of the inferno in his book (The Great Black Dragon Fire - Little, Brown & Co.).

Salisbury retraces the path of the fire, chronicles its causes and progress and shows in lucid, detailed terms the personalities, the politics, the extent, aftermath and future implications of this tragedy. His moving reappraisal of dramatic events that transformed the lives of forest farm communities within a few days gives the new book unexpected power and thrust.

The nagging concern felt by the Canadian-trained fire chief, Commander Ge Xueling, is almost palpably conveyed. Ge had witnessed a spring with unusually high temperatures, negligible spring snows and warm, hard ground. Logging debris was piling up as farms neglected cleanup operations in order to boost the output of logs. Soon his worst fears were realised, and Ge directed operations as a 100 foot wall of flame advanced, incinerating his beloved forest.

Oblivious to the dangers, Wang Zhaowin, mayor of Xilinji, single-handedly directed her bewildered and terrified citizens - 22,000 in all - to refuge and safety. Wang realised that bank money and records must be taken to safety, equally she remembered prisoners in the local jail. At her direction they were released under guard. She dispatched 30 trucks to an army compound to transfer people of the forest control town to safety. Finally, as communication lines to the outside melted in searing temperatures, she masterminded operations from a roving jeep. Almost all of Xilinju was destroyed, and local hero Wang was misguidedly removed from office in the bureaucratic headhunt that followed.

Salisbury's intense concern is clear throughout. But by far most fascinating is his appraisal of the prompt, efficient Chinese response to a major crisis.

Forests play a vitally important role as China's economic development mushrooms. It reportedly cuts 30% more timber than Canada each year and needs still are not being met. By contrast, Soviet forest managers had no immediate milling needs in the remote region. As a result they adopted a policy akin to the 'let-it-burn' practice that prevailed in America's national parks until it was finally reversed in June (1988).

With the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon fire, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) played a major role. To men like deputy division commander Wu Changfu danger became a part of each day's work, and eventually 40,000 troops battled to contain the fire on numerous fronts.

Salisbury's Minnesota background is often inconspicuous in his writing. Now his home state provides a single comparable parallel in the historic Cloquet-Moose Lake fire of 1918. Fanned by Force 10 and 11 winds, the flames destroyed 2,000 square miles of privately managed forests in a single afternoon and evening. Tragically, 400 lives were lost.

The China 'forest' syndrome is rather different. Desert lands inexorably encroach on former forest and agricultural areas. Already "the balance of food production and population is critically poised." China has lost 10,000 square miles to desert since 1950. And the alarming process continues. No wonder ecologists keep so anxious a watch on the pattern and nature of regeneration in Heilongjiang.

The omens from Minnesota afford no comfort. After the Cloquet-Moose Lake inferno, regeneration and recovery never happened. "To this day it is a tumble of second rate trees, burned and reburned," Salisbury observes.

© Howard Smith.