Forest Fires in India

Context:

According to a joint report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and World Banktitled “Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India” 60% districts in India are affected by forest fires each year.

Basic Concepts:

The National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), India defines forest fire as an unclosed and freely spreading fire that consumes the natural fuels. When a fire burns out of control it is known as Wild Fire. There are two types of forest fire:

  1. Surface Fire– A forest fire may burn primarily as a surface fire, spreading along the ground as the surface litter on the forest floor and is engulfed by the spreading flames.
  2. Crown Fire- The other type of forest fire is a crown fire in which the crown of trees and shrubs burn, often sustained by a surface fire.

Statistics: Forest Fire in India

Vulnerability:According to 2015 Indian Forest Survey report, 64.3% of forests in India are prone to forest fires. Out of these, the fire prone areas that fall under heavy fire incidence class are 2.4%, moderate class are 7.49% and mild are 54.4%. Tropical thorn forests, tropical dry deciduous forests and sub-tropical broadleaved hill forests are more prone to forest fires

Overall Trend and Pattern of Forest Fire:

According to the report titled Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India

  • At least 60 per cent of districts in India are affected by forest fires each year
  • Top 20 districts in terms of fire frequency are located mainly in the Northeast
  • The top-20 districts in terms of burnt area are mainly in Central India.
  • Districts experiencing widespread and frequent forest fires include areas of dry and moist deciduous forest in the borderlands of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Telangana that are affected by fire on a nearly annual basis

According to Forest Survey of India,

  • More than 95% of forest fires in India are man-made
  • India has recorded a 46% increase in the number of forest fires from 2003-2017

Recent examples of forest fires

Causes of Forest Fire and Factors influencing the Behaviour

Fig. 2 Topography, weather, and fuel (the corners of the triangle)—influence the potential for intensive fire behaviour and spread. At the centre of the triangle are people.

Factors:

  1. Weather:Fire intensity and behaviour are intricately related to weather and climate.Seasonal weather patterns influence the onset, duration, and severity of the fire season. India’s monsoons are largely responsible for the seasonal nature of forest fires in India. For most parts in India, forest fires peak during the dry months of March or April before the arrival of the monsoon.
  2. Topography:Local topography influences the difficulty of fire prevention and suppression and can raise the potential for out-of-control fires. Steep slopes and rugged terrain are more prone to fire and prevention is also difficult in such areas. States in which fires tend to occur in the most rugged terrain include Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, and Uttarakhand.
  3. Fuel:Fuels determine the potential for fires to ignite, grow, intensify, and spread. Combustible material in forests includes grasses, ground litter, small shrubs, living and dead trees, and decomposing humus in soils.

Causes

Natural:Lightning and volcanic explosion are natural causes of forest fires.

For example: According to the report, a record number of wildfires in Canada’s Northwest Territories in 2014, and in Alaska in 2015 were resulted due to lightning

Anthropogenic:

  1. Negligence: negligent use of fire (during agricultural burning of on farmlands near forests, clearing of paths through forests, burning weeds and bushes on privately-owned lands next to reserved forests) is one of the prime reason for forest fire. Further, accidental fires break out due to campfires and cigarette butts
  2. Collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs): According to the World bank report collection of NTFPs was the main cause of forest fire Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Telangana. People in Central India burn to aid in the collection of flowers from the mahua plant, during collection of tendua leaves for bidi making etc.
  3. Shifting Cultivation (Jhum): Jhum cultivation is the primary reason for forest fires in north-eastern states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, and also in Odisha.
  4. Burning to Deter wildlife:People burn pine needles, cones, weeds, and so on during the dry season to keep away wild boars, birds, and leopards which may ignite forest fires.

Impact of Forest Fire:

Positive impacts:

  • Cleaning up forests of dead and decaying matter and help forests to regenerate
  • Maintaining ecosystem balance by removing diseased plants and harmful insects

Negative impacts:

  1. Loss of forest cover, timber resources and associated economic cost:

According to FSI, the annual forest loss because of fires is estimated at Rs 440 crore. However, this estimate only account for the replacement cost of the seedlings and does not include the losses to biodiversity, timber, carbon sequestration capacity, soil moisture and nutrient loss.

  1. Degradation of water catchment areas:

Forest fires result in the chemical and physical changes in upper layer of soil and make it impervious thus reducing water infiltration. Further, the removal of litter decreases water holding capacity of soil and most of the rainwater is washed away removing top fertile soil of the forest resulting into loss of soil fertility.

  1. Loss of wildlife:

Forest fires lead to wildlife habitat destruction, decline in wildlife population and also post fire the food resources for the wildlife decreases. For example, in the 2012 forest fire in UltaPani Forest in Assam, the number of butterfly species declined to 30 from 200. Further, recurrent forest fires in the same area can lead to modifications in the ecosystem thus adversely affecting the biodiversity in the area

4.Change in micro climate of the area: Forest fires may change the micro climatic conditions by changing soil moisture balance; temperature increase. Further, smoke and dust in the area reduces visibility and also adversely affect the health of wildlife and human population inhabiting near the forest.

5.Forest Fire and Climate Change:

  • The increased average annual temperatures due to change in land use (e.g. decrease in water resources) and climate changehave resulted in below-average rainfall in many areas which has elevated the risk and severity of forest fires.
  • According to a study, increased temperatures and resultant aridity have increased the number and spread of forest fires in USA in last 30 years.
  • Further, forest fires also impact climate change. When a forest gets burnt, the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere which further aggravates warming of the atmosphere. Forest fires emit black and brown carbon which absorbs solar radiation and heats up the atmosphere. It further results in changes in rainfall pattern.
  • Many scholars have advocated the concern over recurrent forest fires in Himalayan forest region and its impact on Himalayan glaciers. According to a 2010 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, from 1990 to 2010 snow cover over the Himalayas decreased by 0.9% to aerosols and black carbon from different sources in India had been responsible for 30% of the decline
  • MoEFCC and World Bank report states that forest fires in India threaten India’s ambition to expand its forest and tree cover by 2030 to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent

  1. Invasive species: forest fragmentation, along with forest fire make forest ecosystems more vulnerable to invasion by alien species; e.g., lantana which in turn, fuel further fires

7.Socio-economic impact:Loss of livelihood for tribal people and the rural poor- In India, nearly 300 million people are directly dependent upon collection of non-timber forest products from forest areas for their livelihood.

Forest Fire Prevention and Management (FFPM) and Government Initiatives

National and state forestry policies provide the overall framework for fire prevention and management.

  1. MoEFCC guidelines:

MoEFCC issued a set of national guidelines for forest fire prevention and control in 2000. These guidelines call for:

  • identification and mapping of all fire prone areas,
  • compilation and analysis of database on forest fire damages,
  • development and installation of Fire Damage Rating System and Fire Forecasting system,
  • all preventive measures to be taken before the beginning of the fire season
  1. National Master Plan for Forest Fire Control:

The main objectives are:

  • To strengthen the organizations responsible for forest fire management
  • To coordinate international transfer of technology and training in the field of forest fire management
  • Creation of a strong database for: number of fires, area burnt, damage to flora and fauna, effect of fire on land and soil and measures taken
  • Assessment of ecological, social, and economic impact of fires
  • Strong national extension strategy for people’s awareness and their participation in forest fire management through Joint Forest Management and NGOs
  1. Forest Fire Prevention and Management Scheme:

In 2017, Intensification of Forest Management Scheme was revised and replaced as Forest Fire Prevention & Management Scheme. The main objectives of the scheme are as follows:

  • Minimise forest fire incidences and help in restoring productivity of forests in affected areas
  • Encourage partnership with forest fringe communities for forest protection
  • Prepare fire danger rating system and devise forest fire forecasting system
  1. Forest Survey of India has developed Pre Warning Alert System. It gives alerts to state forest departments based on parameters like forest cover, forest types, climatic variables (temperature, rainfall) and recent fire incidences over the area
  2. NDMA Guidelines:

Major recommendations include:

  • Incorporate Forest Fire Prevention and Management (FFPM) in existing policy and planning documents
  • Establish National Forest fire Knowledge Network
  • Capacity building of forest officials for better use of early warning systems
  • Assess risk and prepare vulnerability and risk maps
  • Document national and international good practices and utilise them for making forest fire management more effective and practical
  • Increase community awareness
  1. Draft National Forest Policy, 2018: It calls for safeguarding ecosystems from forest fires, mapping the vulnerable areas and developing and strengthening early warning systems and methods to control fire, based on remote sensing technology and community participation.

Issues and Challenges:

  1. Lack of appropriate policy: In India there are no clear guidelines for forest fire management. In November 2017, National Green Tribunal (NGT) had asked the Environment Ministry to evolve a national policy for prevention and control of forest fires. However, no progress has been made so far.
  2. Lack of funding: the allocation of funds to the states for forest fire management is largely insufficient. Further, a large amount of the money allocated under the forest management schemes are not released
  3. Early Warning: Unlike western countries, forest fire in India is largely man-made which makes it difficult to predict
  4. Emphasis on response only: with regard to forest fire management in India, the emphasis has been predominantly on response after the disaster. There has been less focus mitigation, preparedness, human resource development and awareness generation. Also, Post-fire management is not being treated as part of the FFPM process
  5. Lack of community participation: In most of the Indian states, community participation in forest fire management has been poor
  6. Lack of manpower: Lack of manpower hinders clearing of fire lines and also affects the patrolling of forest areas.
  7. Climate Change: The forest fire management in India do not include climate change aspects in planning, policy formulations and implementation stages

Best Practices:

  1. Canadian Forest fire Danger Rating System:

The system collects data on fuels, weather, topography, foliar moisture content (how much moisture is in the leaves and pine needles), and type and duration of prediction. The data helps managers of various fire agencies determine the areas that are most vulnerable to fires and allocate their resources accordingly. Further, the Canadian Forest Fire Behaviour Prediction (FBP) System helps managers assess how far a specific fire can spread and its severity.

  1. Role of forest community: Best Practice in India:

Bilapaka village in Mayurbhanj District of Odhisa:

The villagers have set up the BilapakaJangalSurakshyaParichalana Committee (BJSPC). The villagers have developed an effective warning mechanism and a process to immediately stop small fire incidents

Way Ahead:

  1. Policy:At the national level, a cohesive policy or action plan should be formulated to set forth the guiding principles and framework for FFPM. The policy and programmes for forest fire management should incorporate the dimension of climate change
  2. Management: Forest fire prevention and management practices used by state forest departments also need to be strengthened
  3. Funding and Human Resource: Greater funding for construction of watchtowers and crew stations and for frontline officers and seasonal firewatchers to spot fires is needed. Further, adequate training should be provided to field officers, seasonal firewatchers, and community volunteers involved in firefighting.
  4. Technology:Modern firefighting techniques such as the radio-acoustic sound system for early fire detection and Doppler radar should be adopted.
  5. Data and information: There is a need to support forest fire management through improved data and research to fill critical knowledge gaps
  6. Awareness:Awareness generation for forest communities and visitors is important to prevent loss of life and injuries. Further, regular drills on escape methods and routes based on forest types should be conducted.
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