Fire in the forest

The head of a parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment and forests, Renuka Chowdhury has recently commented that the panel’s recommendations on forest fires are being ignored. The report titled ‘Forest fires and its effect on environment, forests, bio-diversity and wildlife and remedial/preventive measures’ presenting steps on mitigating forest fires had been submitted to the government in December 2016 but is not being implemented.

In India, around 20,000 incidents of forest fires are reported every year. As per a report by NASA, forest fires were on the rise in the year 2016, the rise being 55 percent. “Fires naturally occur in nature but certain mitigating circumstances can cause the number of forest fires that break out to rise. Several causes for the rapid spread of these fires include drought, hot weather, and accumulated chir pine needles, which are inflammable due to their high-resin content and as such provide an abundant source of fuel for these wildfires,” as per the NASA report.

While fires have been used for thousands of years as a land management tool, in the latter part of the 20th century, changes in the human fire dynamics have led to fires posing a major threat to forests. The need for a panel on the issue can be traced back to the devastating forest fires during February-April last year (2016) wherein 4000 ha of forests caught fire across 13 districts of Uttarakhand leading to death of 9 and injuries to 17 people. This caught everyone’s attention.

“Forest fires had seldom been as rampant as they were in the Himalayan States this year, affecting their fragile ecosystem and destroying invaluable forest resources and causing extensive damage to biodiversity including wildlife sanctuaries,” states the report of the parliamentary standing committee. “Forest fires are a recurrent phenomenon during fire season which is from January to mid-June, with peak season of 3rd week of February to 1st week of June… As per a Forest Survey of India report, on an average, 54% of country’s forests are prone to fires–about 1.2% of the total forest areas is prone to heavy, 6.28% to moderate and 45.27% to mild fires,” it adds.

Non-clearance of the fallen trees like chir and pine enhances burning in case of a forest fire. The committee noted that the “ball is in the court of the MoEFCC and that in the light of Supreme Court order of 1996, the central government is bound to persuade the State governments and approve their working plans for salvaging dead and fallen trees with a view to avoid induced forest fire in future.”

The report notes inadequate budgetary allocation to effectively invest in protecting our forests from fires. It observes that in the context of forest fires, the needs of Himalayan States are distinctly different from the other States. It recommends their budget should be demarcated separately from other States, with specific objectives in mind. Because forest fires lead to landslides, it recommends that immediate necessary steps should be taken for minimizing the occurrence of landslides in the affected areas.

The MoEFCC needs to take “a more proactive approach in this regard” and “it should ask its concerned organisations to undertake, on priority basis, assessment of loss of biodiversity due to forest fires and devise plans to prevent loss of biodiversity in the event of forest fires so that corrective and preventive measures in this regard could be initiated at the earliest”.

The committee was shocked to note the gross underestimation of losses due to forest fires.  The government estimation in Himachal Pradesh comes to Rs. 470 per acre and in Uttarakhand it is Rs. 400 per acre. The report recommends that an independent agency having impeccable credibility must be roped in by the MoEFCC to estimate the losses in real terms and properly and earmark budget for compensation.

Also instead of fire watchers, forest workers and CCTVs, the use of drones should be encouraged for forest surveillance and monitoring. The creation of fire lines is critical in wild land firefighting, because without these, a fire can quickly get out of control. The committee is of the view that such traditional methods of containing forest fires have stood the test of time and should not be dispensed with.

The report notes that “creation of ponds and water harvesting structures within the forest area not only reduces river bank erosion but can be a handy tool for supply of water for dousing forest fires.”

Activities relating to collection of pine needles can not only provide employment to a large number of unskilled workers in the hilly states but also get rid of the chir pine needles which play a vital role in spreading of forest fires. The committee recommends the inclusion of work relating to collection of chir pine needles as one of the activities under MGNREGA.

The committee feels that apart from involvement of local communities in forest management and exposing them to devastation of forest fires, there is an urgent need to provide firefighting equipments to the people.

A general observation of the committee was that “there is an urgent need to devise a policy with regard to prevention and mitigation of forest fires and recommends that MoEFCC should, at the earliest, come up with a national policy on the subject.”

Image courtesy: Nibedita Jha, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

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