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Forest fires and their impacts – Explained, Pointwise

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Introduction

Forest Fires is a natural phenomenon. Controlled natural fires are beneficial for the growth of the forest. Most forest fires in India take place during the dry season, between the April-May months. However, in recent years the forest fires have become more frequent than usual. The recent forest fire in Uttarakhand is one such unusual fire. Uttarakhand alone witnessed more than 1000 forest fire incidents in the past six months.

After the repeated fires in Uttarakhand, the state reached out to the Centre for aid. The state demanded helicopters and personnel from the National Disaster Response Force(NDRF) to tackle the wildfires.

About the recent forest fires in Uttarakhand

According to the Uttarakhand Forest Department data, since October 1, 2020, alone 1,028 incidents of wildfires have occurred. Further, it has also affected more than 1,359 hectares of forest land. The forest areas of districts of Nainital, Almora, Tehri Garhwal, and Pauri Garhwal have all seen the fires so far.

In general, the peak in wildfires occurs in the months of May and June in Uttarakhand. But this year so far 983 forest fires incidents occurred.  The major reasons for fire are,

  1. Less rain in the winter months.
  2. Pandemic induced lockdown left a lot of combustible material, mostly pine needles on forest floors.

With the “peak time” for wildfires is yet to come the forests in Uttarakhand is more vulnerable to forest fires.

About the forest fires in India
Forest Fires in India (Source: ISFR-2019)

According to the India State Forest Report 2019, 21.67% of India’s geographical area is forest. Of that, Forests in Assam, Mizoram and Tripura have been identified as ‘extremely fire-prone.

Since the start of 2021, prolonged fires are also recorded in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh (Kullu Valley) and Nagaland-Manipur border (Dzukou Valley). Further, in a recent month, wildfires also occurred in Simlipal National Park in Odisha, Bandhavgarh Forest Reserve in Madhya Pradesh and in sanctuaries for the Asiatic lion and the great Indian bustard in Gujarat.

Causes of Forest Fires in India

Both Anthropogenic and Natural factors cause fires. These include the following,

Anthropogenic causes (90% of all wildfires)Natural Causes
Smoking: Smoking is the leading cause of forest fires globally. Throwing away the cigarette butts without completely extinguishing them can lead to wildfires. Smokers at times become negligent at extinguishing cigarette butts after smoking.Lightning: A lightning strike can produce a spark. Sometimes the lightning can strike power cables, trees, or rocks and any other thing and this can trigger a fire.
Campfires: During camping or outdoor activities people normally leave lit fires or combusting materials unattended. That will ignite wildfires.Volcanic eruption: Hot magma in the earth’s crust is usually expelled out as lava during a volcanic eruption. The hot lava then flows into nearby fields or lands to start wildfires.
Burning Debris: Wastes and trash are on several occasions burned to ashes as a way of reducing the accumulation of rubbish.  For example, the recent Simlipal Forest fire is due to this only.Heat patterns: Increased temperatures due to global warming are making the forests more vulnerable. Rising atmospheric temperatures and dryness (low humidity) make favourable circumstances for a fire to start.
Fireworks: Fireworks are used by humans for various reasons such as festivals. However, their explosive nature can start wildfires.Climate Change: Massive fires in the Amazon forests in Brazil and in Australia are primarily due to Climate Change. The fires due to climate change have certain characteristics in common. It is also applicable to India. They are,

    • Longer duration of fires
    • High-intensity fires
    • Fires of high-frequency
Slash and Burn Cultivation: This is one of the major reason for the fire in India’s Northeastern region.In India the march and April month see more wildfires. It is due to the availability of large quantities of dry wood, logs, stumps, dead leaves, dry grass and weeds in forest lands.
 Lack of soil moisture: The dryness in the soil triggers fire in forests.  For example, the recent Uttarakhand wildfires are due to this.
Why peak forest fires occur during the spring?

The Spring season in India occurs between March and April.  In India, the occurrence of wildfires will be at peak during spring season. The reasons are,

  1. Less rain during the winter months. This will reduce the soil moisture in forests. So, the forest soil does not have the capacity to control the fire on its own. For example, the recent Uttarakhand forest fires are due to this.
  2. During these months, the availability of large quantities of combustible material in the forest is high. This includes materials like dry wood, logs, stumps, dead leaves, dry grass and weeds. This can make the small fire to become big.
  3. In these months, the availability of Wind will aid the wildfire to grow big and makes them hard to control.

The onset of the Monsoon in India will significantly reduce forest fires.

Impact of forest fires
  1. Loss of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Forest fires destroy the habitats and the intricate relationships of diverse flora and fauna leading to loss of ecosystems and biodiversity. Besides, wildfires can even lead to extinction for certain animals.
  2. Forest Degradation: Forest fires especially the ones that happen in dry tropical forests are a major cause of forest degradation. Almost every year, forest fires are witnessed across different forest regions. This persistently reduces the quality of certain forest features like soil fertility, biodiversity, and ecosystems.
  3. According to the 2011 census, 1.70 lakh villages in India have proximity to forests. The livelihood of several crores of people is dependent on fuelwood, bamboo, fodder, and small timber. Forest fires directly impact their livelihood.
  4. Air Pollution: A healthy forest stores and sequesters more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem. But Forest fires reduce carbon sequestration. In addition, the huge clouds of smoke instigated by wildfires lead to massive air pollution.
  5. Soil Degradation: Forest soils are loaded with nutrients. These fires kill beneficial soil microorganisms that are responsible for breaking down the soil and promoting soil microbial activities. Further, the wildfires also make soils vulnerable to soil erosion.
  6. Destruction of Watersheds: Trees and vegetation cover acts as watershed protectors since approximately all the water comes from forest-derived water tables. Whenever they burn, the natural protection systems for water tables, streams, and rivers may be affected.
  7. Triggers Global Warming cycle: When plant life is exterminated by fires, the quality of the air we breathe in declines and greenhouse gasses increase in the atmosphere leading to climate change and global warming. This is reflected in the following diagram.

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Government Initiatives to prevent Forest Fires in India:
  1. Since 2004, the Forest Survey of India(FSI) developed a Forest Fire Alert System(FFAS). The system will monitor wildfires in real-time. So far, the government released three versions of FFAS.
  2. Using the MODIS sensors(Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) Real-time information of fire hotspots is collected and sent to the Forest Survey of India. The FSI will forward the data by email to state, district, circle, division, range and beat levels. People in the locality will also receive SMS alerts.
  3. The government also prepared the National Master Plan for Forest Fire Control. Under this, the government aims to introduce a coordinated and integrated fire-management programme. The other provisions of the plan include,
    • Fast-tracking the initial response.
    • Introduction of forest fuel modification system
    • Prevention of human-caused fires through education and environmental modification
    • Developing a National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) and Fire Forecasting System for faster detection and control of fire.
Suggestion to reduce wildfires
  1. Capacity development of forest departments’ officials at different levels (national,
    regional, local) to reduce the vulnerability of Indian forests fire.
  2. Creating forests fire control manuals for field staff. Thus suggesting steps to early detection, reporting and controlling the fires.
  3. Policy at the national level: A cohesive policy or action plan should be formulated to set forth the guiding principles and framework for wildfire Management. The policy should also incorporate the dimension of climate change.
  4. Using indigenous knowledge and techniques of local and tribal people in comprehensive wildfire management.
  5. Improving the Staffing and capacity of firefighters in the country. For example, construction of watchtowers and crew stations, hiring seasonal fire watchers to spot fires, etc.
  6. Technology: Modern firefighting techniques such as the radio-acoustic sound system for early fire detection and Doppler radar should be adopted.

Overall, forest fires are necessary to clean up the dead and decaying matter in the forest. Further, they can help forests to regenerate. But all this will happen only if the fires occur at the optimum level. To prevent and manage forest fires, not only the government have to take adequate steps, but also the people have to be responsible.

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