In Retrospect

'Bad master' getting worse

Once a routine balancing factor in the ecosystem, forest fires now present a dreadful picture globally — sweeping through terrains, claiming lives and livelihoods, and causing a host of other adverse impacts; write Suraj Kumar and Arif Mohammad

Bad master getting worse

The 'bad master' is living up to its name. Uttarakhand fires raging across the districts of Pauri Garhwal, Tehri Garhwal, Nainital, Almora, Chamoli, Rudraprayag and other areas, have claimed four human and seven animal lives so far. The damage inflicted on ecology, biodiversity and lives of Adivasis, even if fathomable, is irreversible. To add to the gloom, the experts say, the worst part is yet to come in the next few peak months. Furthermore, Uttarakhand fire is but only the highlighted part of the dreadful saga — both in terms of temporal and spatial context.

Neither these fires are new nor are they limited to a particular region. Forest fires occur routinely in large parts of India including Northeastern states, central India, Western Ghats and the western Himalayas. These incidents have scaled in the past few years and keep coming as frequent disasters. The ongoing forest fire in Uttarakhand has come to hurt even as the wounds of Similipal are still unhealed. Before Similipal, the beginning of this year was marked by blazing fires in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.

Global warming and El Niño have increasing influence over the fire-prone areas. El Niño is a climatic pattern related to the warming of the surface of the Pacific Ocean that represents the 'warm phase' of El Niño–Southern Oscillation. The abrupt phenomenon influences the climatic conditions of regions extending from Australia to the USA. It is seen as a major aggravator in recent fires in Australia, Indonesia etc. While the history of forest fires is as old as that of forests, and their occurrence routinely follows an annual pattern, two things should worry us — the threatening scale of forest fires in the past few years and our sloppy approach to adapt to it. We are consistently failing to minimize the impact of forest fires. The reason is twofold: 1) Forest fires are increasingly becoming complex and our combat mechanism has not evolved to that scale; 2) The much larger problem is the socio-political, historic and cultural context wherein a consensus between government, Adivasis and bureaucrats is still beyond sight. The causes of forest fires seem to revolve around this larger problem.

Causes of fires

Indian landscape has a very diverse forest cover — ranging from tropical evergreen forests in the Western Ghats and the eastern Himalayas to alpine forests in the northern Himalayas and wet forests in the Northeast. The causes of forest fires in these states could be specific to the type of forest cover and other factors that they have. Nevertheless, these are broadly classified under two categories — natural and human-made. To a certain extent, the lining between these two categories has blurred as human actions are now affecting nature in significant proportions. This is in addition to the fact, as stated in the 2015 National Institute of Disaster Management report, that 90 per cent of forest fires are caused by humans. While nature and humans can be termed as agents of forest fires, the root causes include:

Long dry spells: Taking the case of Uttarakhand, the state receives annual precipitation of 1,500 mm but this is constrained within a limited period of three months. The remaining nine months starting from summer remain dry. This long dry spell prepares the ground for the fire season that would set off in January and reach its peak between April and June. Also, the hilly terrain absorbs heat quickly. In case there is a rain delay, the surface becomes ready to burn even at the slightest ignition. The villages in the middle Himalayan zone between 1,000 m and 2,000 m have a large expanse of Chir Pine forests which constitute around 26 per cent of the total forests of Uttarakhand. Forest fires in the state mostly feed on these pine trees.

Pine trees: Pine trees shed hard, raisin-laden needles which take over a year and a half to decay. The needles, known as pirul in the local language, keep piling over and over until they are cleared from the forest. Shedding of pirul is at peak during the start of April. Pirul serves as a great burning material. Forest local dwellers have a major role to play in the clearance of these Pine needles. They turn this otherwise useless material into petty utilities by taking it to their fields to burn it in a controlled manner. These locals, however, have distanced themselves away from the process over the past decade on account of their dissatisfaction arising out of their allegedly snatched forest rights. The fires in Uttarakhand and some other states show an alternating trend as the number of incidents rises every second year and grows even stronger the fourth year. This can be partly attributed to the accumulation of needles during consecutive years if they are not cleared.

Global warming: Global warming is the new twist in the tale. It is already showing negative ramifications on a host of issues. The new monstrous form of forest fires globally has come to be attributed to this factor. According to the CSE analysis of 2016, the annual mean temperature in India had increased by 1.2 degrees C since the beginning of the 20th century. Also, 2016 was the second warmest year on record with a temperature of 1.26 degrees C higher than the baseline. It was the same year when Uttarakhand went through the most devastating forest fire in its history.

Preventive measures

The Uttarakhand government came under fire from the opposition for not taking appropriate steps to control the fire. The government's response has been very predictable; it rushed in NDRF teams, helicopters and sought help from the Centre which sent some choppers and other aids. These steps are insufficient and stand contrary to the 2016 Parliamentary Standing Committee Report that opined:

agencies like NDRF should be deployed in fighting forest fires extremely rarely. In fact, State Governments should be asked to train their fire brigade staff to fight forest fires as they will be in a better position to deal with it..

The committee's recommendation holds great merit as fire control in the hilly terrains is extremely difficult. It also observed that there was a huge vacancy in most of the states in this department, even though there is a shortage of firefighting officials throughout the country.

Since forest fires are not an abrupt phenomenon and they follow an annual routine; quick-fix measures are highly inappropriate. The state governments along with the Central Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change should take the pain to chalk out a comprehensive and inclusive plan. The Supreme Court order of 1996 lays down the onus on the Central government also "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."

Any plan to control forest fires, without incorporating Adivasis and forest dwellers is bound to fail. The committee report recommended provision of equipment, packed food and water; procurement of sweeping machines; linking of employment generation (including MGNREGA) with clearance of pine needles; inclusion of children, NCC, women SHGs within the process etc. The core objective behind these recommendations seems to aim at inclusive framework and trust deficit mitigation among various stakeholders.

Socio-political context

The forest fire issue is deeply entrenched in the socio-political and cultural context of the concerned regions across the country. Forests are a bounty of resources that make it a contested domain among various stakeholders — transforming it into a battleground of rights, entitlements and privileges.

Historically, forest dwellers had greater right over the forest resources. But now they believe theirs is a story of alienation, encroachment of rights and migration. As a result, they have distanced themselves away from the traditional conservation of forests which they are no more able to see as their own land. Traditionally, Adivasis played a major role in dousing fires through beating branches and leaves. They had the great advantage of being in proximity to forests, which allowed them to lead first-hand response. Experts, and even parliamentary committee reports, have stressed to include them in mainstream management and control of forest fires. Many of the forest dwellers have now abandoned their homes to live in cities for better remuneration. The deserted forests in some states have now become more prone to fires as there are fewer people who will clear the bed of pine needles and other inflammable from forest floors and beat the fire with branches and leaves.

This sense of alienation is further fuelled by blame games between the government and the locals. State governments blamed setting up fires over local communities who backfire with allegations around the role of illegal timber trades. According to locals, these traders burn the forests to remove traces of deforestation.

Global impact

Forest fires, more or less, follow the same pattern across the globe. Most of these are human-made and attributable to the same kind of causes including agricultural burning, actions of illegal traders etc. Most importantly, their impact is not limited to the boundaries of the region they occur in. The impact of fires on global warming and biodiversity has global repercussions. Is it a hint that countries need to come together and coordinate through the exchange of expertise, technologies and ideas? Also, the apparent effect of global warming on the increased intensity of forest fires is indicative of the strong mutual cause and effect relationship between the two phenomena.

Forests capture and hold carbon dioxide — a process known as carbon sequestration. The process is significant as it balances the excess carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere through various sources. On one hand, we are consistently failing to put a check on CO2 emissions, and on the other, we are not able to retain the force that offsets the impact of emissions. Biodiversity loss, once again, is a global problem even though it is occurring in a particular region. These unaccounted losses pose a parallel challenge as a comprehensive policy framework to mitigate the impact of fires is not possible in dearth of reliable information.

In India, forest dwellers depend on Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) for their livelihoods. Palm leaves are used by locals to make brooms and Babian grass is used to make ropes, among an endless number of things that act as their livelihood. The radical shift in their relations with the forest will lead to a cultural loss for India. Forests hide within their heart a multitude of colours in the form of languages, customs, dresses, ornaments and varied ways of living. From flora to fauna to microbes to humans, forests are teeming with life. There is a need to save forests. There is a need to save life!

Mitigation of the threat

The mitigation of negative impacts of forest fires starts with the monitoring of the fire. India has two sensors — MODIS and SNPP-VIIRS — to detect fire hotspots. The fire alert system was updated in 2018 but still, the scale and intensity of fires go unchecked. Apart from updating alert systems, FSI could do well to rope in Adivasi communities by making them a part of the fire management systems. They are adept at handling such situations in difficult terrains where modern types of equipment may not be accessible.

After the fire breaks out, it has to be countered at the earliest otherwise we know, "Large fires feed themselves". They provide all the three requisites of the fire triangle that leads to combustion — oxygen, ignition temperature and fuel. Initial response requires both funding and manpower that is in a dismal state.

Once the fire breaks out, it can be controlled by using natural buffer zones like streams, roads, rivers etc. The established procedure is to clear the surrounding forest areas so that fire gets constrained and dies down within a particular area. Another strategy is to kill the fire with fire. Firefighters surround the fire-prone area and set fire against the direction of the approaching fire. The fires collide to cut the oxygen supply and end up dying. Deployment of such strategies requires specialized and trained officials who could be easily accessible in times of crisis.


The world is undergoing rapid climatic changes leading to unprecedented catastrophes. Forest fire is one such category that is playing havoc at the global level. The key lies in showing a willingness to understand and adapt to the changes. The national and state leaderships should show the same by comprehending the gravity of the cause, acknowledging the incurred losses, updating policies and technologies and winning the trust of all stakeholders to incorporate them in the designed framework to fight the menace. This must seem a mounting challenge. Turn the coin to the other side, and there is a paramount opportunity to spearhead the battle, lead for the cause and show the world a way forward!

Views expressed are personal

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