Forest Fires in India - VISION

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Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Forest Fires in India

 What is the issue?

  • Uttarakhand has witnessed over 1,000 incidents of forest fire over a six months period.
  • With increasing frequency of forest fires in India, here is a look at the various aspects of it.

What is the recent flare?

  • Since the start of 2021, there has been a series of forest fires in HP, Nagaland-Manipur border, Odisha, MP, and Gujarat.
  • These include the forest fires in wildlife sanctuaries.
  • January 2021 saw prolonged fires in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh (Kullu Valley) and Nagaland-Manipur border (Dzukou Valley).
  • The recent one in Nainital began in March-end.
  • The Simlipal National Park in Odisha saw a major fire between February-end and early March.
  • Recent fires also include those in Bandhavgarh Forest Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, and in sanctuaries for the Asiatic lion and the great Indian bustard in Gujarat.

Why is this unusual?

  • April-May is the season when forest fires take place in various parts of the country.
  • But forest fires have been more frequent than usual in Uttarakhand and have also taken place during winter.
  • Dry soil caused by a weak monsoon is being seen as one of the causes.

How fire prone are India’s forests?

  • As of 2019, about 21.67% (7,12,249 sq km) of the country’s geographical area is identified as forest.
  • This is according to the India State of Forest Report 2019 (ISFR) released by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), Dehradun.
  • Tree cover makes up another 2.89% (95, 027 sq km).
  • Based on previous fire incidents and recorded events, the 2020-2021 annual report of the MoEFCC makes the following categorisations:
  • Forests of the Northeast and central India regions - most vulnerable areas to forest fires
  • Forests in Assam, Mizoram and Tripura - ‘extremely prone’ to forest fire
  • States with large forest areas including Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Odisha, Maharashtra, Bihar and UP - ‘very highly prone’ category
  • Western Maharashtra, Southern Chhattisgarh and areas of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, along with central Odisha are also turning into ‘extremely prone’ forest fire hotspots.
  • Areas under the ‘highly prone’ and ‘moderately prone’ categories make up about 26.2% of the total forest cover.
  • Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are the two states that witness the most frequent forest fires annually.
  • In Uttarakhand, over 45% of the geographical area (24,303 sq km) is under forest cover.
  • The FSI has identified forests along the south, west and southwest regions of Uttarakhand as being prone to varying intensities of forest fires.
  • These comprise Dehradun, Hardwar, Garhwal, Almora, Nainital, Udham Singh Nagar, and Champawat districts.

What are the key causes of forest fires?

  • Forest fires can be caused by a number of natural causes.
  • But, reportedly, many major fires in India are triggered mainly by human activities.
  • Emerging studies link climate change to rising instances of fires globally.
  • This is especially true in the case of the massive fires of the Amazon forests in Brazil and in Australia in the recent years.
  • Fires of longer duration, increasing intensity, higher frequency and highly inflammable nature are all being linked to climate change.
  • In India, forest fires are most commonly reported during March and April.
  • This is when the ground has large quantities of dry wood, logs, dead leaves, stumps, dry grass and weeds.
  • These can make forests easily go up in flames if there is a trigger.
  • Under natural circumstances, extreme heat and dryness, friction created by rubbing of branches with each other also likely initiate fire.
  • In Uttarakhand, the lack of soil moisture too is being seen as a key factor.
  • In two consecutive monsoon seasons (2019 and 2020), rainfall has been deficient by 18% and 20% of the seasonal average, respectively.
  • But, forest officials say most fires are man-made, sometimes even deliberately caused.
  • Even a small spark from a cigarette butt, or a carelessly discarded lit matchstick can set the fire going.
  • E.g. in the recent major fire in Simlipal forest in Odisha, villagers are known to set dry leaves to fire in order to collect mahua flowers, which go into preparation of a local drink

What are the challenges to control measures?

  • The locality of the forest and access to it pose hurdles in initiating fire-fighting efforts.
  • During peak season, shortage of staff is another challenge in dispatching fire-fighting teams.
  • Timely mobilisation of forest staff, fuel and equipment, depending on the type of fire, through the thick forests remains challenging.
  • This is because it is impossible to transport heavy vehicles loaded with water into the thick forests.
  • So, a majority of fire dousing is initiated manually, using blowers and similar devices.
  • But there have been incidents when forest fires were brought under control using helicopter services too.
  • Wind speed and direction also play a critical role in bringing forest fire under control.
  • The fire often spreads in the direction of the winds and towards higher elevations.

What are the associated concerns?

  • Forests play an important role in mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
  • They act as a sink, reservoir and source of carbon. A healthy forest stores and sequesters more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem.
  • In India, notably, 1.70 lakh villages are in close proximity to forests (Census 2011).
  • So, the livelihood of several crores of people is dependent on fuelwood, bamboo, fodder, and small timber.
  • Forest fires can have multiple adverse effects on the forest cover, soil, tree growth, vegetation, and the overall flora and fauna.
  • Fires render several hectares of forest useless and leave behind ash, making it unfit for any vegetation growth.
  • Heat generated during the fire destroys animal habitats.
  • Soil quality also decreases with the alteration in their compositions. Soil moisture and fertility, too, is affected.
  • Thus, forests can shrink in size.
  • The trees that survive fire often remain stunted and growth is severely affected.

What are the measures taken in this regard?

  • Since 2004, the FSI developed the Forest Fire Alert System to monitor forest fires in real time.
  • In its advanced version launched in January 2019, the system now uses satellite information gathered from NASA and ISRO.
  • Real-time fire information from identified fire hotspots is gathered using MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) 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. Notably, the FSI system in January 2019 had over 66,000 users.


Source: The Indian Express