Forest Fires

Forest Fires

Why forest fires break out in the spring?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not Much

Mains level : Forest fires and their prevention

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.

As of 2019, about 21.67% of the country’s geographical area is identified as forest, according to the India State of Forest Report 2019 (ISFR) released by the Forest Survey of India (FSI).  Tree cover makes up another 2.89% (95, 027 sq km).

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.

What causes forest fires?

  • Forest fires can be caused by a number of natural causes, but officials say many major fires in India are triggered mainly by human activities.
  • Emerging studies link climate change to rising instances of fires globally, especially the massive fires of the Amazon forests in Brazil and in Australia in the last two years.
  • Fires of longer duration, increasing intensity, higher frequency and highly inflammable nature are all being linked to climate change.
  • In India, forest fires are most commonly reported during March and April, when the ground has large quantities of dry wood, logs, dead leaves, stumps, dry grass and weeds that can make forests easily go up in flames if there is a trigger.
  • Under natural circumstances, extreme heat and dryness, friction created by rubbing of branches with each other also have been known to initiate fire.

Why Uttarakhand?

  • 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.
  • For example, in Odisha, which saw a major fire last month in Simlipal forest, villagers are known to set dry leaves to fire in order to collect mahua flowers, which go into preparation of a local drink.

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.

Various efforts taken

  • Since 2004, the FSI developed the Forest Fire Alert System to monitor forest fires in real-time.
  • In its advanced version launched in January 2019, the system now uses satellite information gathered from NASA and ISRO.
  • Real-time fire information from identified fire hotspots is gathered using MODIS sensors (1km by 1km grid) and electronically transmitted to FSI.
  • This information is then relayed via email at state, district, circle, division, range, beat levels. Users of this system in the locality are issued SMS alerts.

Forest Fires

Forest fire in Simlipal Biosphere Reserve

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Simlipal BR

Mains level : Forest fires and their prevention

The Simlipal forest reserve area frequently witnesses forest fires during dry weather conditions.

Try this PYQ:

Q.From the ecological point of view, which one of the following assumes importance in being a good link between the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats?

(a) Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve

(b) Nallamala Forest

(c) Nagarhole National Park

(d) Seshachalam Biosphere Reserve

Simlipal Biosphere Reserve

  • Similipal, which derives its name from the ‘Simul’ (silk cotton) tree, is a national park and a tiger reserve situated in the northern part of Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district.
  • Similipal and the adjoining areas, comprising 5,569 sq km, was declared a biosphere reserve by the Government of India on June 22, 1994, and lies in the eastern end of the eastern ghat.
  • It includes three protected areas — Similipal Tiger Reserve, Hadgarh Wildlife Sanctuary with 191.06 km2 (73.77 sq mi) and Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • It is the abode of 94 species of orchids and about 3,000 species of plants.
  • The identified species of fauna include 12 species of amphibians, 29 species of reptiles, 264 species of birds and 42 species of mammals, all of which collectively highlight the biodiversity richness of Similipal.
  • Sal is a dominant tree species.

How fire-prone is Simlipal forest?

  • Generally, with the onset of summers and towards the end of autumn, the forest area remains vulnerable to forest fires.
  • They are a recurrent annual phenomenon but are also brought under control due to the short span of precipitation.
  • This duration coincides with the shedding of deciduous forests in the forest areas.
  • The fallen leaves are more vulnerable to catching fire and facilitate the spreading of these forest fires quickly over the entire forest area.

Forest Fires

Forest Fire: Its Prevention and Management

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Forest Fire Prevention and Management scheme

Mains level : Forest fires in India

The Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has informed that area covering 93,273 hectares was affected by forest fires in 2019. Most of the fires have been “ground fires” burning ground vegetation.

Measures to curb Forest fires:

1) National Action Plan on Forest Fires

  • The MoEFCC has prepared a National Action Plan on Forest Fires in 2018 after several rounds of consultation with all states and UTs.
  • The objective of this plan is to minimize forest fires by informing, enabling and empowering forest fringe communities and incentivizing them to work in tandem 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, enhance capabilities of forest personnel and institutions in fighting fires and swift recovery subsequent to fire incidents.

2) Forest Fire Prevention and Management scheme

  • The MoEFCC provides forest fire prevention and management measures under the Centrally Sponsored Forest Fire Prevention and Management (FPM) scheme.
  • The 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. By revamping the IFMS, the FPM has increased the amount dedicated for forest fire work.
  • Funds allocated under the FPM are according to the 90:10 ratio of central to state funding in the Northeast and Western Himalayan regions and 60:40 ratio for all other states.
  • Nodal officers for forest fire prevention and control have been appointed in each state.

Forest Fires

Blaze down under

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 1-Climate change,Forest fires.

Context

In Australia, forest fires, among the worst in the country’s history, have been raging since September and show no signs of abating.

 Unabated fire in Australia

  • The fire, worst in Australia’s history, has been raging since September and shows no signs of abating.
  • At least 24 people lost their lives, 500 million animal have perished, and more than 12bn acres of land has turned to cinders.
  • New South Wales, the country’s worst-affected state, declared an emergency last week in its southeastern region.

Climate change and the fire

  • Australians have vented their anger at Prime Minister for playing down the blaze’s association with climate change.
  • Bushfires are actually a part of Australia’s ecosystem. Many plants depend on them to cycle nutrients and clear vegetation.
  • Eucalyptus trees in Australia depend on fire to release their seeds.
  • The prolonged blaze this year has coincided with Australia’s harshest summer.
  • Parts of the country recorded their highest recorded temperature in December.
  • Much of Australia is facing a drought that is a result of three consecutive summers with very little precipitation.
  • This, according to climate scientists, is unprecedented.
  • Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s 2018 State of the Climate report had given a hint of the change.
  • It said “Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius since 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events.’’
  • This has led to more rainfall in northern Australia but created drought-like conditions in the more densely populated southeast.

Damage caused to the flora and fauna of Australia

  • Australia is home to nearly 250 animal species.
  • Some of them like the koalas and kangaroos are not found elsewhere.
  • The region also has the highest rate of native animals going extinct over the past 200 years.
  • Experts, for example, reckon that more than a quarter of the koala habitat has been consumed by the blaze.
  • The fires have also caused a drop in the bird, rodent and insect populations.

Conclusion

  • These creatures perished are the building blocks of the ecosystem and the fall in their population is bound to have long-term impacts. In Australia’s bushfires lies a warning about the complex ways in which climate variables interact.

Forest Fires

Sentinel-3 World Fire Atlas

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Sentinel-3 World Fire Atlas

Mains level : Forest fires and their global impact


Sentinel-3 World Fire Atlas

  • The Sentinel-3 World Fires Atlas Prototype product has been developed by European Space Agency.
  • It uses a method that enables it to identify all active fires at night.
  • The sensors on satellites measure thermal infrared radiation to take the temperature of Earth’s land surfaces. This information is used to detect and monitor the heat emitted by the fires.
  • The Atlas uses the satellite data to plot the number of fires occurring monthly.

Why it’s significant?

  • Quantifying and monitoring fires is important for the study of climate.
  • Forest fires have a significant impact on global atmospheric emissions, with biomass burning contributing to the global budgets of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide.

Forest fires on rise

  • Compared to August 2018, there were almost five times as many wildfires across the world in August 2019 the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced citing data from its Sentinel-3 World Fire Atlas.
  • August and September 2019 were also the months during which fires in the Amazon rainforest were at the centre of worldwide attention.
  • A detailed analysis of the August 2019 fires, however, shows that it was Asia that accounted for nearly half of these fires.

Distribution

  • The ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-3 mission recorded 79,000 fires in August this year, compared to just over 16,000 fires detected during the same period last year.
  • These figures were achieved by using data from the Sentinel-3 World Fire Atlas Prototype, which also provided a breakdown of these fires per continent.
  • The data revealed that 49% of the fires were detected in Asia, around 28% were detected in South America, 16% in Africa, and the remaining were recorded in North America, Europe and Oceania.

Forest Fires

Why forest fires are sometimes a good thing

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not Much

Mains level : Forest fires and their global impact

Context

  • In a rainforest-like the Amazon, massive forest fires are a disaster.
  • They irretrievably destroy the habitat of tens of thousands of plant and animal species.

Loss of nutrients

  • If the rainforest burns down, all nutrients are lost because they are stored in the plants themselves, not in the soil.
  • Despite the lush vegetation and the unique biodiversity, the soils are particularly barren and poor in nutrients.
  • Thanks to the year-round warm and humid climate, fungi and bacteria immediately decompose fallen leaves or branches and the nutrients released are reabsorbed by the roots — not the soil.
  • The thin humus layer is quickly washed out after a forest fire, and within three years of the fire nothing will grow in the exhausted soil.

A fire sensitive ecosystem

  • Scientists describe tropical rainforests like those in the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia as “fire-sensitive ecosystems.
  • About a third of all ecosystems worldwide are considered “fire-sensitive.”
  • In the past, severe fires tended to occur less often there due to the natural humidity, vegetation and structure.
  • If there is a prolonged drought triggered for example by the El Nino climate phenomenon or in case of purposefully started fires disastrous surface fires develop quickly.
  • The plants and animals lack a natural ability to resist and recover from fires.

Cleansing properties of forest fires

  • As devastating as forest fires are in the rainforest, the destructive power of fire is necessary for the preservation of other ecosystems, where parts of the natural fauna and flora develop only thanks to the fires.
  • Regular fires give these ecosystems their distinctive structure.
  • This is true for about three-quarters of all habitats worldwide.
  • These include the Siberian taiga, the African savannahs, the South Asian monsoon and dry forests, the Californian coniferous forests, the Australian eucalyptus forests and the Mediterranean region.

How small fires are useful?

  • Rare but very intense fires are characteristic of bush landscapes or forests.
  • They consume old and diseased trees, create new habitats and ensure an ecological rejuvenation of the tree population.
  • Intervening in these ecosystems, for instance by preventing small fires in order to protect the population, can have fatal consequences.
  • Over time, more and more combustible material accumulates. Even harmless fires can quickly turn into highly destructive walls of flames.
  • This happens time and again in Australia or in the dense pine forests in the southwest of the United States, which were once grasslands.
  • When fires occur too frequently humans have to intervene even in ecosystems that depend on fires.
  • In the Siberian taiga, fires have been breaking out more and more frequently due to a rise in the population and expanded development, destroying large areas of forest and releasing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.

Fires give new life

  • Many plants in the southern US, in the Mediterranean region or in Australia actually need fire to survive.
  • The Douglas fir, a conifer species, survives most fires thanks to its thick bark — after a fire, it will sprout new shoots.
  • The North American lodgepole pine also needs the heat of the fire to open its cones and release seeds while the Australian grass tree needs smoke to open its seed pods.
  • After a fire, without the usually dense treetops, more sunlight reaches the forest floor and the seedlings find enough nutrients because they do not have to compete with other plant species.
  • Even some insect species need the fire to survive, including the larvae of the Australian fire beetle that can only develop in freshly burnt wood.
  • Thanks to its heat-sensitive sensors, the fire beetle can detect fires from up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
  • Storks and birds of prey feast on beetles and insects made sluggish by the smoke after a forest fire.

Still catastrophic

  • Climate change is bound to increase the risk of forest fires even further.
  • Forest fires cause 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than 30% of global carbon monoxide emissions, 10% of methane emissions and more than 85% of global soot emissions.
  • They contribute greatly to global warming, which in turn leads to forests becoming increasingly dry and weak.
  • This destructive cycle often makes it easy for new fires to develop.

Forest Fires

Amazon Fires

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Amazon Forest

Mains level : Forest fires and their global impact


  • Over the last several days, the ‘lungs of the Earth’ Amazon rainforest has been burning at a rate that has alarmed environmentalists and governments worldwide.
  • The fires are so large that they are visible from space.

Amazon Fires

  • Started in the Amazonian rainforests, the fires have impacted populated areas in the north, such as the states of Rondônia and Acre, blocking sunlight and enveloping the region in smoke.
  • The smoke has wafted thousands of miles to the Atlantic coast and São Paulo, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
  • Brazil has reported that forest fires in the region have doubled since 2013, and increased by 84% compared to the same period last year.

How did the fire start?

  • Mostly caused by farmers clearing land, the fires have thrown the spotlight on Brazilian policies and anti-environment stance.
  • The farmers had organised a “fire day” along a highway that runs through the heart of the rainforest.
  • Local farmers set ablaze to sections of the rainforest a few days ago to get the government’s attention.
  • And dry weather has further fuelled the fire.
  • The dry season creates the favourable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.

A cause for concern

  • The Amazon rainforest is a repository of rich biodiversity and produces approximately 20 per cent of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • It is also home to indigenous communities whose lives and homelands are under threat due to encroachment.
  • The Amazon basin matches the emissions released by nations in the basin. The burning of forests, therefore, implies additional carbon emissions.
  • Deforestation could lead to the Amazon’s transformation from the world’s largest rainforest to a savanna, which would reverse the region’s ecology.

Importance of Amazons

  • A National Geographic report said the Amazon rainforest influences the water cycle not only on a regional scale, but also on a global scale.
  • The rain produced by the Amazon travels through the region and even reaches the Andes mountain range.
  • Moisture from the Atlantic falls on the rainforest, and eventually evaporates back into the atmosphere.
  • The Amazon rainforest has the ability to produce at least half of the rain it receives. This cycle is a delicate balance.

Flawed environmental policies

  • Since the 1960s, the Amazon has witnessed large-scale deforestation because of cattle-ranching, logging, power projects, mining and farming.
  • Under Brazil’s Forest Code of 1965, farmers could purchase Amazon land but could farm only 20% of it.
  • Agribusiness products in 2016 represented 46% of Brazil’s exports.

Back2basics

Amazon Rainforests

  • The Amazon rainforest is a moist broadleaf tropical rainforest in the Amazon biome that covers most of the Amazon basin of South America.
  • This region includes territory belonging to nine nations.
  • The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil, with 60% of the rainforest, followed by Peru with 13%, Colombia with 10%, and with minor amounts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
  • The Amazon represents over half of the planet’s remaining rainforests and comprises the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world.

Forest Fires

Explained: Why are fires frequent at the Bandipur reserve?

Note4students

Mains Paper 3: Environment | Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Bandipur Tiger Reserve

Mains level: Prevention of forest fires


Context

  • A five-day fire that raged through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve has reportedly burnt more than 15,400 acres of forests.
  • Between February 21 and 25, the reserve saw 127 fire counts in various ranges of the 912 sq km forest.
  • While K’taka Forest Department scrambled to put out the blaze, an Indian Air Force helicopter sprayed over 19,000 litres of water in seven sorties.

Why it matters?

  • While fires are not uncommon at Bandipur, what has surprised officials is their intensity and frequency.
  • The worry now is the long-term damage to the ecosystem, which is a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere that hosts the world’s largest tiger population, at more than 575 (2014 census).
  • Over 400 fire watchers were placed, but questions have arisen whether the precautions were enough, especially since Bandipur has had frequent fires.

How susceptible is it to fires?

  • Bandipur is a dry deciduous forest in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats, and is no stranger to fires. Periods of drought invariably lead to fires.
  • A study has shown that between 1974 and 2014, 67% of the Nilgiri Biosphere had seen some form of forest fire, with Bandipur having reported the most incidents.
  • The 2018 monsoon was particularly strong, but the year-end northeast monsoon has failed.
  • If the monsoon led to dense growth, the blistering heat since September has turned vegetation brittle and dry, with vast swathes becoming tinderboxes.
  • As with most forest fires, it is assumed that Bandipur’s ignition was man-made as miscreants set fire in multiple locations.
  • Compounding matters is the ubiquity of lantana camara, an invasive weed species native to South America, that has spread through nearly two-thirds of the forest area.

What is the impact?

  • India’s forest policy encourages a zero forest fire approach for its protected landscapes — whether it is Bandipur or the rainforests of the upper Western Ghats.
  • Scientific literature has shown this blanket approach may be doing harm to dry, deciduous forests where trees have evolved to co-exist with fire.
  • The trees in this landscape were closer to those in a savanna than in rainforests 100 km away. Trees have dramatically thicker barks, implying that they had evolved to be fire-resistant.
  • When fires are relatively frequent, adult tree mortality in these systems is very low.
  • Many saplings sprout shortly after the fire from underground reserves, and the system returns to its original state in a few years.
  • Conversely, when fires are suppressed — including by curbing the tribal practices of controlled fire burning — a greater biomass builds up that can lead to high intensity fires which affect the ecosystem negatively.
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