India witnessed the most severe forest fires in a decade this year. Frequent surface fire is a matter of concern. The Himalayan forests in India are extremely susceptible to wildfire. In the long run, the many stresses by fire, cattle, and fuelwood cutting can lead to the complete destruction of Himalayan forests, warns experts.
These Forests of Uttarakhand have been repeatedly burned and subjected to severe environmental damage. The normal fire season in India is from February to mid-June. The last India saw the most severe forest fires was during the summer of 1995 in the hills of Uttarakhand & Himachal Pradesh.
With fresh rainfall, the fires have been completely doused in Uttarakhand. A total of 1,681 forest fires incidents in Uttarakhand, has claimed nine lives and ravaged 3,739 hectares of forest land.
Now that the Forest Fires are under control, let’s reflect on 6 important lessons learned from this natural catastrophe.
Lesson #1. The impact of Climate Change is unequivocal
Increased incidences of forest fire are often linked with Climate Change. The frequency, size, intensity, seasonality, and type of fires depend on weather, prevailing climate, forest structure, and composition.
The El Nano effect on the world has been brutal this year. Forest Fires were reported all over the world. An extremely hot and dry spell of summer with the absence of any pre-monsoon rainfall have been cited as the primary reason.
According to a report, Forest Fire Disaster Management, by the National Institute of Disaster Management, the four worst forest fires in the last 20-25 years is there in the following infographic-
A comparison of air temperatures during the fire season for past few years can be useful in understanding the role of Climate Change.
Lesson #2. Media failed to give a comprehensive picture of the larger issue
The forest fires ravaging Uttarakhand have been widely reported after a Social Media outcry. Less reported are the 20,000 forest fires that enflame many parts of India this year. In the last five years, 12 states have seen more forest fires than Uttarakhand. Strangely no-one from media took any active interest in pursuing this story.
Sadly the media coverage remained speculative. Picturing Timber Mafia as the main culprits was convenient for all major news channel. The focus of media debates was playing the blame game. Suddenly the debate moved towards hearing Politicians and Administrators distract people from the core issues. The environmentalist and Forest Conservators were hardly given air time to make their point.
Lesson #3. Blaming Timber Mafia for the Forest Fire is factually incorrect
Talks about “Timber Mafia” responsible for the forest fire have been widely dismissed by the experts. Geologist Ramamurthi Sreedhar, Hem Gairola have ruled out “timber mafia” causing the forest fires in Uttarakhand. Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta points out that with a ban on the large-scale felling of trees in the region, it doesn’t make sense for an organized timber mafia to be operating there. “No one wants to question the large-scale deforestation in Uttarakhand due to roads and large dams, but it becomes convenient to blame local people when such forest fires happen,” he says.
Manoj Mishra, a former Indian Forest Service officer also echoes similar view. “It is not deliberate as has been said about the recent spate of forest fires,” he clarifies.
According to Ravi Chopra, a former member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), high temperatures with no atmospheric moisture were the major reason for this year’s fires. “This year, the major cause is the high temperature and the lack of rainfall. There has been speculation about it being a man-made fire but there is no proof as such,” Chopra said.
Yet, reports of land grabbing by few is unequivocal. There is a clammer for the acquisition of mountain land by any means necessary. There is an increase in demand for land meant to be sold to outside parties. A burned Forest makes it easier to occupy the cleared out land. The incidence of land grabbing by opportunist locals is rampant in Uttarakhand.
Lesson #4. The lethargic role of Forest Department, State Govt has gone unnoticed
The Forest Department are the custodian of conservationist endeavors. The department has suffered at all fronts. Be it a shortage of funding, training, manpower and corruption.
Delays in the release of funds to the forest department for creating fire lines. Or missing on afforestation targets due to forest fires. These are some of the excuses they bring up when questioned in due diligence.
Forest Department has failed in making the local people a stakeholder in conservation endeavors. Instead, unresolved issues about the use of forest land by locals cause resentment, often triggering locals to set a fire.
The auctioning of timber to Timber Mafia also raises eyebrows of rampant corruption among Forest Officials. The nexus has many beneficiaries from the forest department to Senior State Politicians.
Lesson #5.Need for more study on the impact of repeated fires on Pine/Oak Forest
“The fire, as such, influences the structure and process of a natural forest ecosystem. The periodicity, spatial coverage, and severity of such fires vary temporally and these fires are generally associated with excessive accumulation of pine needles and leaf litter in pine and oak forests in Kumaon,” as per case study by Sharma & Rekhari.
There is enough data available on structure and functioning of pine and oak forest ecosystems in Uttarakhand. However, very little information is available on the impact of repeated fires on pine and oak forests. The last conclusive Forest Fire Impact Study was of The Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary Fire (in 1995) by Jamal A. Khan. There is an urgent need for carrying forward research studies on the impact of repeated forest fires in the Western Himalayan belt of India.
Lesson #6. Working with Local People, a way forward in containing Forest Fires
The best solution to contain Forest fire is by making the locals stakeholders in Conservation endeavours.
“The containment of forest fires is possible and only sustainable and affordable when the local people are at the centre of fire prevention and control. To do this a drastic change and shift in the approach to handling forest issues is needed, but in their wisdom, our fossilized authorities insist of half-following age old, largely outmoded strategies,” says Vinay Tandon, Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, H.P.
Sadly, the Centre and State Government are busy deliberating on outlandish means of fire control, that includes bringing in expensive Aircraft and fire fighting Helicopters. Why not look for more realistic solutions of containing fires by engaging the people? We can only hope that better judgement prevails.