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India Has Already Witnessed Multiple Big Forest Fires This Year: Here Is All You Need To Know About Wildfires

Apart from natural causes like lightning strikes and heat of the Sun, uncontrollable forest fire disasters are also caused by manmade factors like carelessness, poaching, erratic methods of gathering forest produce and lack of fire safety, say experts

One of the fallouts of climate change is the intensifying forest fires, which in some cases rise to the level of the canopy of trees, destroying everything in its wake
Highlights
  • Naturally occurring fires are important for the growth of the forest
  • Frequent, high-intensity fires can damage soil, flora and fauna of forests
  • A large wildfire is capable of modifying the local weather conditions

New Delhi: “That day I felt like a wild peacock. I could not contain my happiness and the relief I felt when it finally rained. The showers that day gave me hope that we will be able to defeat the fire that we have been fighting for over 11 days. That was when I started dancing my heart out. Nature itself got involved in helping us douse the fire afterall,” said Snehlata Dhal, a nature lover, forester and a mother of a 5-year-old girl. Ms. Dhal won over the hearts of netizens after a video in which she can be seen dancing in the rain in the Simlipal biosphere reserve of Mayurbhanj, Odisha went viral.

Before the rains she along with her team of six other officials were fighting the fire ravaging the forest for nearly two weeks.

While talking to NDTV, Ms. Dhal said that even though they have been trained in containing forest fires, the situation at Simlipal was so challenging that she and the other members of the taskforce assigned to douse the fire were facing a lot of difficulties. She said that the biosphere is huge and as they were blowing the fire out at a number of spots in one area, multiple new spots in other areas of the forest were catching fire.

We were continuously getting alerts about new fires that were being tracked by satellites. During those 10-12 days, I couldn’t give time and attention to my daughter as my entire focus was on fighting the fire. We were working the whole day till late at night. I am thankful to my parents-in-law who took care of my daughter during that difficult time, she said.

According to the National Forest Inventory under the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MoEFCC), almost 10 per cent of the forest area in the country is heavily affected by forest fires or wildfires while about 54 per cent is mildly affected. This implies that about two-thirds of the country’s forest area is vulnerable to fires. The Forest Survey of India Report 2019 which is the latest survey says that over 30,000 incidents of forest fires were reported in the country in 2019. Wildfires can sometimes become uncontrollable and cause extensive damage. In February this year, a massive forest fire broke out in Simlipal Forest in the Maryubhanj District of Odisha which raged on for over 20 days before it burnt down. Earlier in January wildfire ripped through the forest in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh and it took days to control it. Another fire was reported in January in the forests on Nagaland-Manipur border that raged for about two weeks and was doused with the help of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the army. In just three months of 2021, the country has already faced three big forest fires. Here is all you need to know about forest fires and how these impact the environment.

According to experts, about two-thirds of the country’s forest area is vulnerable to fires

According to experts, about two-thirds of the country’s forest area is vulnerable to fires

Also Read: Expert View: Five Reasons Why You Should Care About Biodiversity Loss

What Causes Forest Fires?

Wildfires are the uncontrolled combustion or burning of plants in a forest or a grassland which consume dried biomass such as leaves, branches and trees and spread based on the wind direction and topography, according to Aakash Ranison, Environmental activist and Climate Change expert. He said that the causes of wildfires can be divided majorly into two categories- Natural and Manmade.

The natural fires are caused by high temperature, drought, the friction of dry bamboos and lightening, said Mr. Ranison. These fires are more common in dry deciduous forests which are dominated by trees that lose their leaves seasonally. Some trees like Eucalyptus trees produce flammable oils in their leaves and fallen leaves of the tree can facilitate fires not only that, as soon as the fire catches on, the trees’ bark peels away, providing more fuel for the flames, he said. These trees can be found in many places including Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Southern parts of the country. In the Himalayan region, the fires are linked to chir pine trees.

But human interference also incites fires in forests. According to the Forest Survey of India, a majority of forest fires in the county are caused by human activities. It says that wildfires caused by humans can be accidental, intentional or from lack of preparedness. Some of the major human activities that cause wildfires are:

– Poaching: According to Biswajit Mohanty, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and founder of the Wildlife Society of Odisha, poachers invading the forests kill wild animals with giant fires. He said that poachers inflame fires on three sides of an area that has wild animals because of which all the wildlife run in a particular direction to protect themselves from fire and it becomes easier for the hunters to trap or kill the animals. Akshita M Bhanj Deo, the princess of the erstwhile royal family of Mayurbhanj, Odisha told NDTV about a week before the massive fire ripped through the Jungles of Simlipal, about 50 kilograms of ivory (from elephants) was found. Similipal National Park covers an area of over 2,750 square kilometres and is Asia’s second-largest biosphere reserve.

– Collecting Forest Produce: Bibhudatta Das, a resident of Mayubhanj, Odisha said that villagers sometimes use fire for gathering forest produce. Giving an example of the Simlipal forest, he said that the forest is prone to catching fire at least 2-3 times between January and April because, during this time, people collect a flower Madhuca Indica which is locally known as ‘Mahua’ and is used in making ‘toddy’, a kind of alcohol. He said that they set the dry leaves on fire to facilitate gathering ‘Mahua’ flowers.

– Traditional Agriculture Practices: Mr. Das said that another cause of fire in forests is agriculture. He said that people in villages in and around the forest areas follow traditional agricultural methods that employ fire as a land clearance and preparation tool.

– Invasion Of Forests For Economic Activities: Mr. Mohanty explained that remote forest lands are also destroyed with fire on purpose, for economic activities like mining or setting up of industries or illegal timber trading. Ms. Deo highlighted that about a few months ago, local youth in the Simlipal area reported about sand and timber mafia in the forest. Mr. Ranison said that the same scenario was observed during the fire in the rainforests of the Brazilian Amazon.

According to Mr. Ranison, some of the other causes of forest fires is the use of fires by villagers to ward off wild animals, fire lit intentionally by people for recreation or accidentally by those who discard cigarette butts.

Also Read: State Of India’s Environment: Our Air, Water, Land Have Become More Polluted Between 2009 And 2018, Says Centre For Science And Environment Study

Impact Of Forest Fires On Biodiversity And Environment: The Good And The Bad

Are all forest fires bad? No, said Anish Andheria, Wildlife Photographer, Biologist and President of Wildlife Conservation Trust, a nature conservation organisation working in 23 states across the country. According to him, the wildfire has a reputation of being a destructive act of nature but when it occurs through the natural process, it plays an essential role in the natural life cycles of plants and wildlife. He further explained that in absence of small fires, forests become much denser and dead leaves, branches and trees accumulate which does not let the sunlight to reach the ground or seeds to germinate to grow into new forest. He said that the accumulation of dead and dried biomass that act as fuel increases the risk of the catastrophic scale of wildfires that can cause a huge loss of biodiversity, especially during warm and drought-like conditions. Small natural fires also rid forests of diseases and insects that kill trees, he added.

Explaining the role and importance of forest fires Mr. Ranison said,

Forest fires helps in rejuvenating the soil and remove the undesirable grass or dead leaves and thus promote healthier and stronger plant growth. Wood ash formed after the fire is a good fertilizer, giving seeds a rich environment to grow.

On how forest fires benefit wildlife, Mr. Andheria said that by clearing the floor of the forest, fires help in providing food and shelter to numerous wildlife species.

The experts, however, highlighted that human activities have disrupted the natural regime of forest fire, making it more frequent and severe. According to Mr. Ranison, forest fires and climate change are interlinked. He said,

The changing climate with warmer and drier conditions is likely to increase the risk, timing and severity of forest fires. Because of the increased temperature and drier conditions, the fires spread quickly and make them harder to put out. Warmer conditions also contribute to the spread of insects that can weaken or kill trees, building up the fuel in a forest. The fire caused due to climate change further contributes to global warming as large wildfires have the capability of altering the local weather and produce an immense amount of carbon emissions.

Forest fires cause harm to trees and kill seedlings that could have grown into new trees and contributed to the health and longevity of the forest, said Biswajit Mohanty, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and founder of the Wildlife Society of Odisha

Forest fires cause harm to trees and kill seedlings that could have grown into new trees and contributed to the health and longevity of the forest, said Biswajit Mohanty, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and founder of the Wildlife Society of Odisha

Mr. Ranison further said that fire can damage soil nutrient and also increase the risk of soil erosion. As the vegetation available near the ground is burnt, it leaves herbivorous animals hungry and forces them to come into human settlement looking for food and thus increasing animal-human conflict, he said.

Inhaling of wildfire smoke can wreak havoc on the health of humans and animals. People living in villages in the forest and at the foothills of Simlipal are facing a burning sensation in their eyes because of the pollution created by the fire. Those who are asthmatic are having a hard time, said Bibhudatta Das.

People living in villages in the forest and at the foothills of Simlipal are facing difficulties because of the pollution created by the fire

People living in villages in the forest and at the foothills of Simlipal are facing difficulties because of the pollution created by the fire

Also Read: Reversing Global Warming: Bill Gates Talks About Ways To Reduce Pollution And Protect The Environment

Reducing Adverse Effects Of Wildfire Through Forest Management And Proactive Planning

Forest fires are not something new or unknown. These are frequently reported all across the country usually during summers. According to Ms. Deo, investing in fire prevention and control through capacity building is urgently required, especially at places where people are living in close proximity to wildfire-prone areas. Mr. Das said that when it comes to fire management, the government should focus more on prevention and not just suppression and tribal communities with traditional knowledge should be roped in for effective management. He urged the government to make the people a part of the fire-fighting crew. He said,

In Odisha, the state government took cognizance of the situation in Simlipal when the fire had already engulfed over 5,000 points across the forest.

The state government of Odisha had created a task force of over 1,000 people to douse the fire at Simlipal biosphere reserve

The state government of Odisha had created a task force of over 1,000 people to douse the fire at Simlipal biosphere reserve

According to the state government of Odisha, to douse the fire, squads of over 1,200 people were formed including forest department staff and fire watchers engaged on daily wages. The head of the task force, Dr Sandeep Tripathi said that the forest fire in Simlipal is now contained and the rainfall that occurred a few days back also provided some relief. He further said that the core area of the forest with wildlife has not been impacted much and the fire was mostly confined to the peripheral areas.

Mr. Das highlighted that this year, there have been some negligence on the part of the state government in terms of preparedness. He said,

To prepare for the wildfires, every year, the government draws a fire line which helps in containing the fire. This year, unfortunately, they neglected this crucial exercise. Fire line is a passage made by clearing all biomass so that the fire does not spread beyond it. Apart from fire lines, removing the dead trees that act as fuel can help in preventing large fires. It is also very important to engage with the local communities and educate them about sustainable agriculture so that they stop using fire as a tool for clearing of the field.

Also Read: Environment Crisis: 7 Endangered Species On Verge Of Extinction Due To Human Activity And How It Impacts Us

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