Forest Fires

Forest fires in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, their causes, management and government response.

Source: India Today

Forest fires are an annual occurrence in Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. Over 4,500 hectares have been affected in Himachal Pradesh, some 40% more than the 3,185 hectares in Uttarakhand. The latter state has seen 1,470 incidents of fire so far — 803 (affecting 1,413.58 ha) of which were in the Garhwal region, 463 (1,076.21 ha) in Kumaon, and 204 (695.65 ha) in wildlife zones.

Nature of fire

It is very difficult to actually know how the fire started. But at least with the circumstantial evidences it is clear that there was lack of preventive measures and the preparedness was low with a weak action plan.

Wildfires in the Himalayan Region. Source: India Today

 

Forest fires as Natural Event

As a natural event Forest fire in Uttarakhand is a common phenomenon during the summer season. It is so mainly due to the presence of Chir pine trees. These trees heavily shed the highly inflammable dry Chir pine needles which acts like a fuel for combustion.

As a natural event wildfires are sometimes a natural process, and help forests by promoting flowering, branching and seedling establishment. fires that are limited to the surface may help in the natural regeneration of forests. The heating of the soil may result in helpful microbial activity, and hasten decaying processes that are useful for the vegetation.

Forest fires are a natural phenomenon and are bound to happen periodically. Some of the contributing factors are, built up of highly inflammable Chir Pine dead leaves, poor hydrological health, increasing impact of temperature increases, increasing pressure on the forests due to increasing human activity in the vicinity and repeated drought conditions.

Causes of Forest Fires, Manmade Event

Wildfires are an annual occurrence in Uttarakhand, though they have been bigger and more widespread in 2016. The fire season usually begins from mid-February and lasts until mid-June, when the rains arrive. In 2016, the fires started early — the first incident was reported on February 2. In Himachal, the first fire was reported on April 7. Their frequency and intensity increased after April 25, the day the state saw 80 incidents of fire.

Causes of forest fires

More than 95% of wildfires in India were man-made,

  1. People instigate forest fires by burning dry chir leaves.
  2. Villagers burn leaves and grass in order to get better growth of grass the following year.
  3. Forest dwellers burn the needles of the chir pine, which form a slippery carpet on the ground.
  4. In the Terai region, honey collectors start fires to drive away bees.
  5. Utter failure of human institutions at several levels, such as, built up a highly inflammable Chir-pine dead leaves in a forest prone area and diversion of water for unsustainable tourism activities despite the foreseeable danger of forest fire.
  6. The diversion of spring water for human uses gradually decreased the moisture content of the forest floor which in turn makes it more susceptible to catch fire. This unsustainable nature of increasing tourism in the state adds to the adversity.
  7. The residents of Uttarakhand villages migrate on a mass scale in search of better economic opportunities. These villages that would previously check the buildup of highly inflammable Chir pine were absent to perform necessary preventive and remedial functions.

Impact

The fire which was bound to occur in the Chir pine forests also spread the to the undisturbed and remote oak forests which shelters several species of birds and animals, is essential for their survival and breeding and such unpredictable wildfire can even lead to local extinction of species.

Moreover oak forests are very important for the local villages, as their dead leaves are used as compost for terrace farming; it also provides fodder for milk producing cattle which is an important source of animal protein. Its loss could be devastating for the local village economy. This is strongly indicative of failure of human institutions at different levels.

The real losses however, are ecological and social — those of biodiversity, timber, soil moisture and nutrients, etc., besides the environmental impact of heavy smoke rising from the fires.

Management

  1. Replacement of Chir pine trees with others suitable trees to be carried out scientifically.
  2. Selective felling of Chir pine and gradual replacement.
  3. Villagers those are not willing to stay back could be provided with appropriate incentives such as development of lucrative forest based industries.
  4. Effective mass utilization of pine needles with the help of technological and industrial support could create employment opportunities for villagers and simultaneously solve the problem.
  5. Use the traditional method of “beating the fire down” with green branches..
  6. Use of Mi-17s flying sorties to dump water picked from the Bhimtal lake and the Srinagar, Garhwal, reservoir over the affected areas of Kumaon and Garhwal.
  7. Banning people from carrying matchboxes to forests.
  8. Awareness campaigns.
  9. More modern systems of fire monitoring alongside traditional methods like maintaining fire lines, so there is a clearing between two forests to prevent the fire from spreading from one to the other.
  10. Greater interaction between villagers and the Forest Department for bridging information utilization hiatus, and research extension hiatus. In Himachal too, “fire beating” and clearing of “fire lines” is under way.
  1. Adoption of “counter fire” with forest officials starting fires from the opposite end of a forest to check the flames at a defined boundary.

 Government response

The post fire scenario does was met with a typical knee-jerk reaction by the Government and with a little luck by rainfall. The government is also proposed mass cutting of Chir pine forest (a knee-jerk reaction) as it is the so-called “culprit” for the forest fire. While it is imperative to note that, other than the general virtues of a natural forest, Chir pine forests are unique. Chir pine trees are not harmful they instead have a lot of benefits such as Turpentine oil, Rosin, handicraft, aesthetics, curing respiratory problems and they perform vital ecological services as well. Mass deforestation of Chir pine would adversely affect Uttarakhand’s ecology and the glaciers and consequently India.

Conclusion

Though Uttarakhand forest fire was a natural event, it was certainly human factors which made its occurrence more favorable. Post fire management shall play a crucial part in restoring the forest; however, biodiversity once lost cannot be restored. This could be taken as a lesson to focus more on prevention rather than cure.

Importance of local wisdom in combating forest fire

What is Local Wisdom

Local wisdom is a body of knowledge which has evolved with the life experiences of people.

Before the advent of capitalism, growth of nationalism and globalization, there were small communities which used to take care of their natural and cultural heritage. These communities constitute a group of people who share similar hopes and goals who has a sense of unity and maintain a stable identity in the face of rapid societal change.

However with the growth of globalization, these communities are now heavily influenced by the so called “modern” ideas of the western countries which gave them a sense of backwardness about themselves. The result- abandonment of their valuable heritage- local wisdom.

The rural communities in India which originally led a holistic life which put much emphasis on community building by working as a team, respecting elders and working with the nature have however been undergoing significant changes steadily. These communities are replacing their local wisdom with western ideas of technology, individualism, consumerism, production centric work, etc due to which they have started to identify themselves as backward, rural and poor. This thought proved to be quite costly in Uttarakhand.

The issue of removal of pine needles from the forests could not be addressed due to an indirect issue of mass migration. The villager’s unwillingness to stay in the village could not be ensure due to which there was a lack of man power to carry out essential procedures which could have prevented the fire. The villages are not willing to stay back due to economic concerns.

The communities which were initially self-sufficient in managing their resources, facing natural calamities, community recreation and issues with the gradual weathering away of their heritage are becoming more and more dependent on the Government to solve their day-to-day problems. These communities, which were initially assets to India, are now totally dependent on the Government to solve their problems.

Uttarakhand, which has historically seen NGOs and civil society groups perform strong advocacy role such as, Chipko movement as weathering away. Today such organizations have lost their loyalty to several donor funded projects. Some of them have even accepted project terms according to which they effectively lose their critical and questioning voice.

Also, the National Policy for Forest Fire presently focuses on international technology transfer and international training program. In the present plan the flow of information and technology is mainly from top to bottom, i.e. from the Government and allied agencies to the rural areas. Technology, which is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, must flow both ways. However, sadly the local wisdom, i.e. the local knowledge gained from living in balance with nature is ignored. Local knowledge can be both abstract and concrete. But its importance lies in the fact that it is derived from the practical experiences of life events. The national policy to tackle forest fire could have been more effective has it been inclusive of the local wisdom.

Uttarakhand which is losing its heritage of state-people partnership and local wisdom must revive it, spread it and replicate it- that is the obvious conclusion.

Questions

  1. Although the forest fires destroy a large area, they are called natural events. What makes them natural events and beneficial. Discuss
  2. Forest fires are as much natural as man made. In this light, discuss its causes.
  3. The disruption of culture and natural livelihood was the main factor responsible for Uttarakhand forest fires. Analyse the statement with its concurrent impact.
  4. The management of forest fires must be by preserving local sentiments and knowledge as well as by conjunctive use of modern techniques.
  5. In view of the nature of the causes of forest fires, the government’s response must focus on forestry management and heritage management rather than on knee jerk reaction.
  6. What do you understand by local wisdom in the light of forest fires and to what extant local wisdom can be helpful in solving the problems of fires in sustainable manner.

By K Siddhartha

Earth Scientist, Author, Mentor, Educationist & Consultant | 20+ years mentoring experience | 40+ books across humanities disciplines | Advisor to Maldivian & Sri Lankan Govt. on Education and Environmental Issues.

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