Uttarakhand's Forest Fires
- Posted By
14th Apr, 2021
In the first week of April 2021, Uttarakhand has recorded 361 incidents of a forest fire that have damaged 567 hectares, including 380 hectares of reserve forest areas. A total of over 2,500 hectares of forests in Uttarakhand have burnt to ashes since January this year.
- Seven districts in Uttarakhand—Dehradun, Rudraprayag, Pauri Garhwal, Tehri Garhwal, Chamoli, Nainital, and Almora — are most vulnerable to forest fires.
- More than 12000 forest personnel have been deployed in fire-fighting operations across the state.
- Uttarakhand has around 38,000 sq. km of forests, which is almost 70% of its geographical area.
- Since the year 2000, after its separation from UP, forest fires have affected over 48,000 hectares.
Understanding forest fires
- Forest fire (Wildfire or bush fire), can be described as any uncontrolled combustion or burning of plants in a natural setting such as grassland, forest, or tundra.
- It consumes natural fuels like dry leaves and spreads based on the prevalent environmental conditions. (e.g., wind, topography).
- There are three types of forest fires:
- Crown fires are the most intense and dangerous forest fires. They burn trees up their entire length to the top.
- Surface fires burn only surface litter and duff. These fires are the easiest to control and extinguish and cause the least damage to the forest.
- Ground fires (sometimes called underground or subsurface fires) occur in deep accumulations of humus, peat, and similar dead vegetation that become dry enough to burn. These fires move very slowly but can become difficult to fully put out, or suppress.
Different kinds of Forest fires
Why do forest fires occur?
- In Uttarakhand, forest fires start every year in around mid-February and continue until mid-June in summer. This period is known as ‘forest fire season’.
- Month of February brings the onset of the Spring season. The trees shed their leaves and the soil loses moisture due to a temperature rise.
- In hilly areas particularly, the surface gets dry faster than plains due to the lower accumulation of rainwater.
- Three factors cause the spread of forest fire —
- fuel load - dry leaves act as fuel for a forest fire. This year the concentration of dry leaves was higher than before. The reason for this is explained in the next section.
- The Forest department has cited four causes of forest fires in Uttarakhand –
- deliberate fires by locals
- Carelessness - like people leaving campsites without fully extinguishing the fire
- farming-related activities and
- natural reasons - like lightning, sparks due to stone collisions, etc.
- Some reports have also highlighted that friction of electricity cables with dry leaves and woods and lightning can also trigger forest fires.
- There is a large threat in Uttarakhand due to the presence of large tracts of pine forests.
- Pine leaf needles are water repulsive and do not decay very easily. Therefore, they make a very large thick cushion on the ground, which is very inflammable.
- Pine contains a large amount of resin which is tapped for making turpentine oil. However, they are highly inflammable as well. Thus Pine trees encourage forest fire.
Why is the current situation worrisome?
- Various reasons have contributed to making forest fires this year much worse than before
- Lockdown: It led to less human movement and activity in the forest. Thus, the collection of dry leaves near human habitations was reduced increasing the fuel load.
- Less rainfall: Rains were less in both the monsoon season as well as winters. Thus, the soil lost its moisture earlier this year.
- Rise in temperature: Atmospheric temperatures in March and April had been higher than in the previous years.
- Stronger Winds: This has increased the rate of spread of fires.
- Among all the above factors, the forest department can control only fuel load by controlled burning.
- The situation has been considered alarming also as the peak time for forest fire, which usually occurs in the third week of May when temperatures are the highest is yet to arrive.
What impact does forest fire have on the Environment?
- Impact of the forest fire at two-level: local as well as global
- Global level: At a global level it increases the carbon burden on the atmosphere which is the main cause of global warming.
- Local-level: At a local level it suffocates people, affects the health of the people, it takes away the livelihood.
- After the forest fire is over the forest becomes much less dense and its canopy is very much reduced.
- Also, the soil is very much baked and as a result, they become hygroscopic, that is, they do not allow sufficient water to penetrate the ground, which later on affects our groundwater resources.
- When the rains follow in late June or July, then we find that the same area which has suffered forest fire also becomes a cause of the
- As the flood takes away the ash along with it goes the nutrients. This makes the site very poor in terms of nutrients and the biodiversity is greatly affected.
How can forest fires be prevented?
- The measures to prevent forest fires can be divided into Short-term and Long-term measures.
- Short term measures include:
- Engaging Local community to curb forest fires
- Involving local community: The provisions of the Forest Act, 1988 dissociated the local community with the forests. As the feeling of belonging is lost in the community, they do not initiate measures to control the forest fires.
- Awareness generation: awareness is the only solution and there should be programs to motivate local people to protect forests from fire because they act as the first responder whereas the forest department has limited staff.
- Collecting dry leaves which act as fuel
- Before the peak time that is from February to June, forest department officials can collect the ground fuel with the help of locals. This can significantly decrease the area of spread of the forest fire.
- Aerial Surveillance - using Drones and satellites to identify areas where fires may be beginning and responding before they can spread any further.
- Long-term measures include:
- Improving soil moisture content: It can be improved by digging waterholes across the mountains. This will help in the recharge of groundwater and maintain moisture in the soil.
- Encourage growth of Natural vegetation: Wetlands and spring regeneration should be given prime importance.
Uttarakhand is a warning sign of the challenges that lie ahead for India in preserving its fragile natural ecosystems from the looming climate crisis. India must put all hands on the table to mitigate and reduce incidents of forest fires to preserve our valuable forests and prevent biodiversity loss.
Along with material and personnel support to the relevant departments, it is very important to involve local communities to not just keep an eye on the forests but also in cleaning the fuel load to prevent large outbreaks in India’s precious carbon sinks.