Forest fires in the hills of Uttarakhand have damaged valuable natural resources. Forest fire is a common phenomenon during summer in Uttarakhand. However, this time, the fire started in February and spread to most forest areas of the state. A number of theories are circulating on what would have caused such gargantuan fires in Uttarakhand, reportedly the worst the state has seen in recent times.
In terms of the incidences of forest fires, this year is particularly bad. According to data from the environment ministry, a total of 18,451 incidents of forest fires were reported from across the country in 2013, compared with 19,054 in 2014 and 15,937 in 2015. This year has seen a jump, with at least 20,667 fires already reported as on 21 April.
- In December 2015, the environment ministry released the India State of Forest Report. According to the report, India’s forest cover is 701,673 sq. km which is about 21.34% of the country. As per the Forest Survey of India data, almost 50% of India’s forest areas are fire prone but this does not mean that fires affect 50% of the country’s area annually.
- The major forest fire season in the country varies from February to June. Reports have estimated that about 6.17% of Indian forests are subjected to severe fire damage annually.
What led to early forest fires?
- The major reasons for forest fires in Uttarakhand are the highly inflammable material of dry chir pine needles and the dry-leaf litter of broad-leaved trees on the forest floor associated with chir pine. Chir pine covers a significant forest area (about16%) in the state and, every year, encroaches on the mixed species area due to its hardy nature as well as the ban on green felling above 1,000 metres.
- Mass migration of villagers is also to be blamed. In recent years, migration from the state has checked the local utilisation of the needles, leaving more fuel for forest fires. Himalayan forests are spread over difficult and inaccessible terrain, which forest officials cannot access without the help of locals. It’s difficult even for the forest department to cope with the situation.
- Scant rains, with a dry spell in winter, El Nino and climate warming have also led to early forest fires. High atmospheric temperatures and dryness offer favourable conditions for a fire to start. In many forest ecosystems, reduced precipitation before and during the dry season can reduce fuel moisture and lower humidity near the surface, allowing fires to more easily escape from human control, and spread more rapidly over the landscape.
How can early forest fires be prevented?
- The pine needles, the main fire hazard, need to be converted into a resource for the community by extending capital, technological and industrial support for their effective utilisation and as a livelihood opportunity. They can be used in briquettes, compost, boards, tiles, etc.
- Some of the measures can be tried through the creation of forest self-help groups (FSHGs) or local forest special purpose vehicle (FSPV) — with an industrial linkage to the removal of dry needles with the help of villagers for making bio-briquettes, compost or vermicompost, composite boards, panels, etc.
- This activity can also be linked with employment generation schemes like MGNREGA, Skill India and Make in India, as well as women’s empowerment schemes. This will provide a double benefit — removing the pine needles from the forest and generating employment and incomes. It’s a bio-fuel and bio-energy resources are always welcome.
- Migration is an indirect issue that needs to be addressed to control forest fires. The willingness of local village communities to stay in the state can be strengthened by an assurance of employment and basic facilities like healthcare, education and communication. They can be motivated by nature-related activities with a market tag, for example, organic crops and products like millets, milk, mushrooms, fruits, colourants, fibres, etc. All these activities make people vigilant and also protect their surroundings.
- The conventional centuries-old method of making fire lines or firebreaks (also used as inspection paths) and burning and clearing them before the summer is also not practised properly due to a lack of manpower. Usually, a forest guard or beat guard would look after a large forest area, which is difficult to cover even over several days on the tough terrain. Therefore, the forest department needs to exclusively recruit forest-fire-fighting staff acquainted with modern technologies.
- There can be other approaches to reducing the fire hazard in the monoculture/ pure chir pine forest, like the inclusion or plantation of indigenous broad-leaved, moisture-conserving species, particularly banj oak, Myrica, Alder, Rhododendron, etc at higher elevations and sal, khair, Harad, Baheda, Arjun, sissoo, etc at lower elevations. The selection of species must be done after understanding the local ecology and public needs. Besides, it’s necessary to strictly follow scientific and advanced borehole methods for resin extraction.
- Modern fire-fighting techniques like the Early Forest Fire Detection Using Radio-Acoustic Sounding System, Doppler radar, etc can also be used. Further, the use of modern forest fire detection and monitoring systems with help from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) and Isro, as well as creating awareness among locals along with their participation, can be a better solution.
- On the scientific forestry front, a gradual arrest of the spread of chir pine forest, specially above 1,000 m, is leading to a change in forest composition. The selective green-felling of chir pine, as silvicultural thinning and improvement thinning to help the deodar-oak forests, needs to be done by presenting the case in the Supreme Court.
- Dry-spell periods are increasing and the moisture regime is gradually depleting. This needs to be redressed by proper soil and water conservation measures to maintain soil moisture and recharge the natural springs.
- A participatory approach is key to success in all initiatives, which reflects on joint forest management (JFM) areas by strengthening JFM committees. Similar approaches are needed in strengthening van panchayats and other local bodies.
- Communication — via print or electronic media, social media, community radio, Doordarshan — can also boost public awareness and action. Communication measures should be activated at the start of summer and some reward and recognition should be announced to motivate locals. This job can only be done with the active participation of local communities who need to be trained, equipped, authorized and supervised by local staff of the forest department.
- In the US and Canada, specialised aerial fire-fighting aircraft are used to drop water, foam- and gel-based water enhancers, and other fire retarders. Hence, provision of helicopter-squads and watch towers would certainly help, especially during a crisis.
Though fires have been ravaging Uttarakhand’s forests for nearly three months, central and state authorities have woken up to the damage far too late. Only after several of these localised fires coalesced and damaged flora and fauna in six Uttarakhand districts, has the issue received the attention it deserved. Hence, in fire control strategy, emphasis should be put on prevention rather than curing. Curing is of no use after the loss of biodiversity, forest wealth and lives.