Raging fires, burning trees...
Climate change has a lot to do with increased intensity of forest fires, finds out Himanshi Shukla
While the India and the world battle the deadly Pandemic, the forests in India continue to bear the brunt of repeated forest fires. While they are a recurring phenomenon, the fact that these fires are increasing in frequency, intensity and duration is a worrisome factor. Fires raged across several parts of Uttarakhand, Simlipal National Park in Odisha, Naliya Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Kutch, Gujarat, and Shetrunjay Hills Forests, Gujarat to name a few. While Forest fires are common during the fire season (February to June), Uttarakhand, which already has a sensitive ecology has seen more than 900 odd incidents of fires.
What are forest fires and how are they caused?
Anuj Kumar Saxena, ex- IFS, says: “80 per cent of the forest fires are anthropogenic in nature. The fire season is definite and recurring in nature- which mostly begins from the end of February and stretches well up to the summer. One can attribute the fire catching causes to a singular triangle of ignition material (dry leaves, wood pieces, etc); oxygen (for combustion to take place), and initiation factor (which is more often than not man-made though sometimes it may occur naturally as well).” It is thus clear that the only thing that we can control here is the initiation factor. “Often there are roads or railway lines that cut through the forests and let’s say one traveller throws a discarded cigarette out of the window- and before you know this will set the forest ablaze. This can also happen naturally due to friction – when rocks fall on each other, etc. But the latter is very rare and quite balanced. It doesn’t spread very far and it even helps the forest ecosystem,” he adds.
J S Asthana, ex- IFS (retired), Ex Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and HOD, UP Forest Department, says: “Forest fires usually take place in the months from February to June when gradually sun gets warmer and forest litter gets dry. Fallen trees & tree branches, dried herbs, bushes & leaves become very inflammable. People passing by the roads in forest areas on foot, by buses, trucks & cars very often throw their lighted cigarettes and bidis on the dry litter lying on the forest floor which catch fire which spreads very fast with the blowing wind. Many a times the farmers burn their crop residues after harvesting their rabi crops. This fire blown by winds very often reaches to the adjoining forest areas causing forest fires. Sometimes, the labourers working on the road repair works on roads adjoining forests or passing through the forests cook their meals on road sides & carelessly leave behind burning or smeltering fires in their chulhas which spreads in adjoining forest areas carried by strong winds.”
Can frequent forest fires be attributed to climate change?
Increasing number of studies has shown that climate change has a lot to do with increased intensity of forest fires. The frequency and intensity of forest fires, as well as the increased duration of the fire season, number of large fires, frequency of severe fire years may be attributed to climate change. Increased mean global temperatures due to global warming generally spell doom for forest since high temperatures favour forest fires. Again, scarce rainfall (which may be attributed to climate change) too plays a direct role. Taking the classic example of Uttarakhand which has faced close to 900 incidents of forest fires between October and March (Forest Survey of India estimates), had comparatively lesser rains than before in the same time period (as per Indian Meteorological Department).
Not only in India, the ‘heat’ of the fire phenomenon is being faced world over. Who can forget the fires of Amazon rainforests in 2019 and Australian fires and Siberian fires in 2020? The world watched with bated breath as the ‘lungs of the earth’ gasped for air. In such a scenario, facts from Emissions Gap Report 2020 (released by United Nations Environment Programme- UNEP) should be enough to raise alarm bells. As per the report, Greenhouse gas emissions grew for third consecutive year, reaching a record high of 52.4 Giga tonne Carbon equivalent. Since Forests act as ‘sink’ and ‘reservoir’ of carbon, increasing fires will cause this trend to reverse even more.
To what extent are anthropogenic activities responsible for forest fires?
Controlled fires have traditionally been used as a tool for forest management. However, uncontrolled fires of anthropogenic origin are a serious concern for sustainability of the forests and their prevention poses one of the greatest challenges.
SK Awasthi, ex-IFS, says: “Forest fires are mostly caused by anthropogenic activities. 90% of the time, they are caused deliberately by people due to various reasons. It may be done to capture their Minor Forest Produce (as recognized by the Forest Rights act, 2006). People may also do it in order to obtain new shoots of grass for their animal fodder. In central India, especially Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and even in lower UP (Chitrakoot forests), forest fires are caused by the individuals to obtain Mahua. In the North-East, these are caused by farmers who practice Jhum Cultivation (slash and burn method). Yet again, stubble burning by farmers, which is supplemented by the high wind velocity is also a contributing factor in the forest fires.”
Which areas in India are most prone to Forest Fires and what is the frequency of such incidents?
As per an analysis by the Forest Survey of India which was published in the Technical Information Series (Volume 1, January 2019), “Nearly 4% of the country’s area is extremely prone to fire, whereas 6% of the forest cover is found to be highly prone to the forest fires. More than 36% of the country’s forest cover has been estimated to be prone to frequent forest fires.” “It is seen that most of the forest fire prone areas are found in the North-Eastern region, Uttarakhand forests and the Central Part of the country,” the analysis states. Incidentally, as per the India State of Forest Report 2019, these areas fall into the category of ‘very dense forest cover’ which makes the situation even more worrisome. “54.40% of forests in India are exposed to occasional fires, 7.49% to moderately frequent fires and 2.405 to high incidence levels while 35.71% of India’s forests have not yet been exposed to fires of any real significance,” as per the Forest Survey of India.
What technology is used in detecting and controlling forest fires?
Technology such as Satellite remote sensing-based forest fire detection in near real time is of critical help in early detection and consequently early warning and early control of forest fires. As per the Forest Survey of India: “A number of 37,059 fires were detected in year 2018 using MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro-radiometer) sensor data. Real-time fire information from identified fire hotspots is gathered using MODIS sensors (1km by 1km grid) and electronically transmitted to FSI. This information is then relayed via email at state, district, circle, division, range, beat levels. Users of this system in the locality are issued SMS alerts.” The Forest Survey launched FSI Fire Alert System (FAST) 3.0 on January 16, 2019.
JS Asthana says: “For dowsing forest fires normally they take some twigs or branches of the trees and use it to ‘beat’ the fire. If wind speed is high and chances of getting trapped in the forest fire are more, then at some distance apart in the direction of the wind the fallen leaves, branches, herbs & bushes are cleared creating a temporary small fire line and a “counter fire” is done towards the direction of the forest fire so that fire spread in adjoining forest areas is ruled out and forest fire coming from the direction of the temporary fire line meets the fire coming from opposite direction & thus automatically fire gets dowsed after all inflammable materials on forest floor are burnt in that small forest affected by the two fires.” However, when the fire goes out of control, then the State Disaster Response Force and National Disaster Response Force are roped in for help. Even Indian Air Force’s help is taken. This year, for example, Air Force used Bambi buckets from helicopters to drowse fires.
Since Forest fires are a recurring phenomenon, what preparations does the Forest Department undertake as preventive measures?
SK Awasthi says: “Such measures are taken before the onset of the fire season, that is, before February. Measures range from Physical to planning and obtaining relevant supplies. The most important physical measure is Controlled Burning. In this, we ensure that fire lines are made- both man-made (roads, canals, etc) and natural (lakes, ponds, etc). These fire lines are broadened and controlled burning is carried out to eliminate inflammable material. Planning part includes assessment of Fire Maps, based on previous year trends. Based on this assessment, crew is deployed on Ad-hoc basis (Fire Watchers). In my view, Fire Watchers should be deployed intelligently on fire-prone points since managing the fire on such a massive scale becomes a very daunting task.” “Then there are also materials that are to be procured before hand- adequate water supply, materials and implements that may be required by the forest officials and Fire Watchers,” he adds.
JS Asthana says: “Normally forest department maintains fire lines (wide stretch of linear forest areas which are cleared of the dry leaves, herbs, bushes, tree branches and fallen trees before onset of the fire season. Normally the fire lines pass through the boundaries of two forest compartments, beat boundaries or on both sides of roads, railway lines and canals passing through the forest areas. Controlled burning of fire lines is done under the close supervision of forest personnel before the onset of fire season with a view to burn all inflammable material present on these fire lines so that the danger of forests carting fire are minimised. But despite all precautions and preparedness of forest department for prevention of forest fires, cases of forest fire do occur every year and in some years such cases are quite higher and cover more forest areas depending upon the intensity of the heat in summer season. As against this, sometimes intermittent rains in the summer season decrease the possibilities of forest fires by wetting the inflammable material on the forest floors & decrease in the day temperatures.”
What are the steps taken by the national and state governments to tackle the problem?
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEF&CC), recognising the need to revamp forest fire management in the country came up with the National Action Plan on Forest Fires, 2018, to minimise forest fires by informing, enabling and empowering forest fringe communities and incentivising them to work with the State Forest Departments. The plan also intends to substantially reduce the vulnerability of forests across diverse forest ecosystems in the country against fire hazards. It also aims to enhance capabilities of forest personnel and institutions in fighting fires and swift recovery subsequent to fire incidents. Additionally, MoEF&CC also provides forest fire prevention and management measures under the Centrally Sponsored Forest Fire Prevention and Management scheme which replaced the Intensification of Forest Management Scheme (IFMS) in 2017.
What are the challenges faced by the forest Department in dealing with fires?
S K Awasthi says: “There is almost always a resource crunch. The budgetary allocation is not enough to meet the needs. Besides there is problem of the forest department being understaffed. As a result, Fire watchers are enrolled on ad-hoc basis. They should be continuously supplied adequate oxygen and water to avoid asphyxiation and dehydration. Again, you need both resources and personnel. Then you have the monumental swathes of forest which many a times have difficult terrain and the 30- 40000 fire points provided by the Forest Survey of India may not be enough when the fire goes out of hand. In such cases, it isn’t necessary, much less impossible that the fire spreads where resources have been mobilised. The communities may or may not help. In Chitrakoot forests, sometimes there is Surface fire which is hard to detect, especially source points. That said, I’d also like to add that extraordinary problems call for extraordinary solutions. In 2017, by the efforts of Ms Renuka Kumar, Principal secretary of Disaster management in Uttar Pradesh, forest fires were declared as a ‘Disaster’ in the state. This meant that they are to be administered by the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The District Magistrate can allocate money from grants which can be utilised for buying equipment and hiring staff and even giving compensation to people. Uttar Pradesh was the pioneer state to implement this and since then several other states have followed the suit.”
What is the ecological impact of Forest fires?
Forest fires are one of the major drivers of damage caused to forests in the country. Precious forest resources including carbon locked in the biomass is lost due to forest fires every year, which adversely impact the flow of goods and services from forests. As per the India State of Forest Report 2019, Volume 1, Chapter 5, “Besides direct losses, foresters have to also deal with many side effects of fires such as the increasing spread of weeds, soil erosion, loss of regeneration, landslides, habitat degradation, loss of forest produce, etc.”
Anuj Saxena says: “Uncontrolled forest fires cause what we may term to be ‘retrogression’ in terms of forest ecosystem. When we talk about ecological succession, in normal terms, there is species progression which goes on until a climax species is reached. Forest fires disturb this normal balance of nature and cause progression to reverse. Many species of trees may go extinct due to repeated fires in a particular area. Short trees may be completely or partially wiped out and replaced by broad leaved trees.” SK Awasthi says: “Forest fires that engulf the countries pockets especially the ones from April onwards are very dangerous. Temperatures range beyond 40 degrees and wind velocity too favours the fire. As a result, it becomes uncontrolled.”
J S Asthana says: “Fire incidents cause a lot of damage to the forest & wildlife in addition to causing a lot if environmental pollution. Many wild animals including mammals, rodents & birds get burnt. Also, the humus present in the top layers of forest floor is burnt causing a huge loss of moisture and organic materials and manure very much needed for the germination of seeds and growth of the saplings. Even the saplings, herbs, shrubs and young pole crop of different species get burnt which damages the natural process of forest regeneration. Sometimes human habitations, and cattle sheds situated in or around forest areas get engulfed in forest fires causing a lot of damage to properties and lives including cattle deaths. Many a times, villagers & forest staff get trapped in the forest fires and get seriously burnt while dousing the forest fires.”
Are Forest fires always bad?
SK Awasthi says: “Slight fires in early fire season do help. But these are rare. Such fires clear the forest floor; hence the seeds get clear beds for good germination. When we take the example of Teak, the dormancy of the seeds is broken and there is phenomenal growth. Besides, there is need for good grass for animals for their fodder, which has good growth after fire.” Anuj Saxena mentions the same phenomena for Sal trees. “Slight fires cause Sal trees’ growth,” he says. In some cases, forest fires may be necessary for the preservation of other ecosystems. It clears off dense bushes and canopies, making way for sunlight to reach the forest floor, siding in growth of seedlings. Slight forests are a must in some forests like South Asian Monsoon and Dry Deciduous forests (Found in India), Siberian Taiga, African Savannahs, Australian Eucalyptus forests, etc. Some plant species (Conifers and Pines, etc) and insects (example- Australian Fire Beetle whose larvae can develop only in freshly burnt wood) also need fires for survival. Again, intensity of the fire shouldn’t be too much and only naturally caused fires can be that controlled.
The way forward
SK Awasthi says: “Firstly, the resources of the forest department need to be strengthened. Forest fires, unfortunately are not on a very high priority. Though it would be prudent to say that the earlier ‘you-cannot-help-it’, ‘they-are-bound-to-happen’ attitude has drastically changed. There is increased awareness due to media coverage and people are being sensitized slowly and steadily, though there is a long way to tread.” “Secondly, I would like to add that community education should be given utmost importance as this will give us the dual benefit of people not causing fires and people coming forward to douse fires when the forest department needs them. The duty of people residing in or near the forests has been mandated this duty to help forest officials when there are fires under the Forest Act, 1927 and also the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Again, to claim that people do not help at all would be a blanket statement. I have myself noticed that Uttarakhand hill people (Tehri-Mussoorie border) are quite aware and they’ll readily inform the forest officials in case they notice fire. On further inquiry I found out that the reason they were so vigilant was because their water sources would be impacted if the fire was to increase. So, that means that obtaining people’s cooperation isn’t that difficult once you link their problems with the forest. Also, community development schemes should be linked to the issue. For example, the gram sabhas which help the forest department should be rewarded so that an example is set,” he adds.
J S Asthana says: “As we see that forest fires are a big challenge for the forest personnel as well as people living in & around forest areas and every possible step must be taken to prevent them and if at all they occur, to drowse them as soon as possible so that the immense loss to forests, wildlife, ecology of forests, properties & lives of humans & cattle lives too are saved. Effective use of technology should be done. Dehradun, Uttarakhand based Forest Survey of India regularly monitors the cases of forest fires through the images sent by the satellites and alerts the forest department officials of concerned states giving GPS location and extent of the area covered by forest fire. This helps the forest officials in quickly locating and reaching the site of the forest fires for extinguishing the same. This latest technology-based detection of forest fires is definitely very important development in this field.”
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