How Does India Tackle Forest Fires?

With the dry season setting in, State forest departments all over the country are rushing to put safety mechanisms in place. According to Real Time Forest Alert System of the Forest Survey of India, the number of forest fires has gone up from 4225 to 14,107 between 2018 and 2019. Of the total number of forest fires, a large percentage has occurred in the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu etc. This could be owing the State Forest Department’s inefficiency but also to be considered is the fact that forests in the South are mostly dry deciduous in type and hence are more susceptible to fires. Contrary to belief that all forest fires are caused by lightning, bamboo rubbing and other natural reasons, the largest reason of forest fires in India are humans.

Forest fires not only lead to loss of forest resources, burning down of ecosystems, damage to trees and fauna, threat or death to animals but also add to the prevailing problem of global warming and climate change. Hence, it becomes vital for authorities to make the welfare of their forests a priority. So how do forest authorities manage forest fires? A large number of fires and the loss of forest floor have woken the Centre up to the fact. The Forest Survey of India which is responsible for the monitoring and assessing India’s forests launched a “Large Forest Fire Monitoring Programme” this January. The program which is part of the FAST 3.0 (FSI Fire Alters System) uses real time data from the SNPP-VIIRS satellite to track fires across the country and improve the response to the same.

One of the first steps is the preparation of the forest fire risk zone map which is done by overlaying the index map layers of land cover type, surface slope, aspect, proximity to settlements, closeness to roads, and elevation using GIS tools. The area of the prepared map is grouped into five risk zones such as very low, low, moderate, high, and very high. IRS remote sensing satellites images are used to map the forest types in a region. Such mapping has helped establish that the main region affected in forests of Karnataka is dry deciduous followed by grasslands. Also revealed was the fact the moist deciduous forest is changing to dry over the years. Watch towers is one among in the first line of defense. Fire watchers are assigned the duty to look for fire from atop a building known as the fire lookout tower.

But they have it difficult with the sweltering heat and inaccessible terrains. There is also a severe low of human resources. On an average, each forest guard has to patrol an area of 20-30 sq. kilometers, often on foot. Under the “zero forest fire” target, large numbers of firewatchers were recruited. Another common traditional practice is the creation of fire lines. A ‘fire line’ is the exercise of burning a strip of forest vegetation and clearing the land so that if there’s a fire the flames are effectively stopped by the barren strips of land and the sire is stopped. However, authorities have to be careful that this exercise is undertaken at the right time. The vegetation is usually burnt during winters when the winter moisture helps controlled burning.

A news article in The Hindu reported that many tiger sanctuaries missed the deadline for making the fire lines. This calls for authorities to pay attention to seasonal changes in the forest and the moisture content each month. None of the above mentioned management tools will work if there is no vigilance and effective prevention. Monitoring, regulation and training of authorities is vital. In forests like Bhadra in Karnataka, a huge density of flowered bamboo, dead and fallen timber are extracted to reduce fire risk. There is also a need for effective communication and mobility to reach affected areas as quickly as possible. The NGOs and eco-warriors play a substantial role in fighting forest fires.

Organizations like Wildlife Conservation Education Project, Nature Conservation Guild and Wild Cat-C supported by WCS have been effectively working on the anti-fire campaigns. Involving local communities, students, and teachers residing around protected areas will instill a sense of belonging. Post the February Bandipur forest fire, authorities in Karnataka realized that the volunteers who came to help lacked knowledge and training and hence were largely useless. Therefore, the Karnataka Forest department initiated workshops to train eco-warriors on how best to assist in such situations. The question is can forests bounce back from fires? Forests can recover quickly from fires depending on its severity.

Low intensity fires actually help the soil and rejuvenate plant life. The ashes increase the availability of nutrients. However, with the rise in climate change and the anthropogenic nature of forest fires, they end up having devastating consequences on the forest and forests are finding it difficult to bounce back. Forest fires in India have increased by 125 percent which could be the result of both drier climates and poor management. The only means to reduce the forest fires is to reduce anthropogenic interference. For instance, after the resettlement of villages out of the protected region of Bhadra in Karnataka, there was a considerable drop in forest fires.

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