- Uttarakhand has witnessed over 1,000 incidents of a forest fire over the last six months, including 45 in the last 24 hours alone.
Forest fires this year
- Since the start of 2021, there has been a series of forest fires in the Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland-Manipur border, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, including in wildlife sanctuaries.
- April-May is the season when forest fires take place in various parts of the country.
- But forest fires have been more frequent than usual in Uttarakhand and have also taken place during winter; dry soil caused by a weak monsoon is being seen as one of the causes.
How vulnerable are forests in Uttarakhand?
- Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are the two states that witness the most frequent forest fires annually.
- In Uttarakhand, 24,303 sq km (over 45 per cent of the geographical area) is under forest cover.
- Fire can play a vital role in keeping the forests healthy, recycling nutrients, helping tree species regenerate, removing invasive weeds and pathogens, and maintaining habitat for some wildlife.
- As populations and demands on forest resources have grown, the cycle of fire has spun out of balance.
- Forest fires have become an issue of global concern. In many countries, wildfires are burning larger areas, and fire seasons are growing longer due to global warming.
- Globally, forest fires release billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, while hundreds of thousands of people are believed to die due to illnesses caused by exposure to smoke from forest fires and other landscape fires.
Reasons for Forest Fires:
- Thunderstorms are the most likely natural cause for forest fires.
- The dry deciduous forests in central and southern India face 5 to 6 months of dry period and are vulnerable to fires.
- The reasons are mainly manmade, particularly in cases where people visit forests and leave burning bidis, cigarette stubs or other inflammable materials.
- A major reason for forest fires in north-east India is slash-and-burn cultivation, commonly called jhum cultivation.
- The north-east has tropical evergreen forests which are not likely to catch fire easily on their own like the dry deciduous forests of central and southern India.
India’s Initiative to Tackle Forest Fire:
National Action Plan on Forest Fires (NAPFF):
- It was launched in 2018 to minimise forest fires by informing, enabling and empowering forest fringe communities and incentivising them to work with the State Forest Departments.
- The plan also intends to substantially reduce the vulnerability of forests across diverse forest ecosystems in the country against fire hazards.
- It also aims to enhance capabilities of forest personnel and institutions in fighting fires and swift recovery subsequent to fire incidents.
Forest Fire Prevention and Management Scheme:
- The Forest Fire Prevention and Management Scheme (FPM) is the only centrally funded program specifically dedicated to assist the states in dealing with forest fires.
- The FPM replaced the Intensification of Forest Management Scheme (IFMS) in 2017.
- Funds allocated under the FPM are according to a center-state cost-sharing formula, with a 90:10 ratio of central to state funding in the Northeast and Western Himalayan regions and a 60:40 ratio for all other states.
- It also provides the states to have the flexibility to direct a portion of the National Afforestation Programme (NAP) and Mission for Green India (GIM) funding toward forest fire work.
- India has set ambitious policy goals for improving the sustainability of its forests.
- As part of the National Mission for Green India under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, the government has committed to increase forest and tree cover.
- Under its Nationally Determined Contribution, India has committed to bringing 33% of its geographical area under forest cover and to create additional sinks of 2.5 billion to 3 billion tons worth of CO2 stored in its forests by 2030.
- In Uttarakhand, the lack of soil moisture too is being seen as a key factor. In two consecutive monsoon seasons (2019 and 2020), rainfall has been deficient by 18% and 20% of the seasonal average, respectively.
- But, forest officials say most fires are man-made, sometimes even deliberately caused.
- Even a small spark from a cigarette butt, or a carelessly discarded lit matchstick can set the fire going.
Why are forest fires difficult to control?
- The locality of the forest and access to it pose hurdles in initiating firefighting efforts.
- During peak season, shortage of staff is another challenge in dispatching firefighting teams.
- Timely mobilization of forest staff, fuel and equipment, depending on the type of fire, through the thick forests, remain challenges.
- As it is impossible to transport heavy vehicles loaded with water into the thick forests, a majority of fire dousing is initiated manually, using blowers and similar devices.
- But there have been incidents when forest fires were brought under control using helicopter services.
- Wind speed and direction play a critical role in bringing a forest fire under control. The fire often spreads in the direction of the winds and towards higher elevations.
What factors make forest fires a concern?
Forests play an important role in mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
- Carbon emission: They act as a sink, reservoir and source of carbon.
- Livelihood loss: In India, with 1.70 lakh villages in close proximity to forests (Census 2011), the livelihood of several crores of people is dependent on fuelwood, bamboo, fodder, and small timber.
- Destruction of animals’ habitat: Heat generated during the fire destroys animal habitats. Soil quality decreases with the alteration in their compositions.
- Soil degradation: Soil moisture and fertility, too, is affected. Thus forests can shrink in size. The trees that survive fire often remain stunted and growth is severely affected.