Insights into Editorial: How to tame our forest fires

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Insights into Editorial: How to tame our forest fires 


 

Summary:

Forest fires are big problems in countries like Australia and America. In India, states where forest cover is thick, like Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, and the North-East, are often prone to forest fires. During the summer, forest fires become quite rampant because the forests become littered with dry senescent leaves and twigs, which could burst into flames ignited by the slightest spark.

Types of forest fires:

Forest fires are normally of two types. A surface fire may burn primarily by spreading along the surface litter (senescent leaves and twigs and dry grasses etc.) on the forest floor.

  • The other type is a crown fire, in which a crown of trees and shrubs burn, and is often sustained by a surface fire. A crown fire is particularly very dangerous in a coniferous forest because resinous material given off burning logs burn furiously. On hilly slopes, if the fire starts downhill, it spreads up fast as heated air adjacent to a slope tends to flow up the slope spreading flames along with it. If the fire starts uphill, the chances of spreading it downwards are less.

 

Why Indian forests are prone to forest fires?

  • A report titled Forest Fire Disaster Management, prepared by the National Institute of Disaster Management, a body under the Ministry of Home Affairs, in 2012, said about half of India’s forests were prone to fires. 43% were prone to occasional fires and 5% to frequent fires, and 1% were at high or very high risk, the report said, quoting data from Forest Survey of India’s State Forest Report, 1995, a compilation of 25 years of observations and analyses.
  • Forest fires can be caused by both natural and man-made reasons. In most of the cases in India, due to heavy population, human habitations have often gone closer to thick forest, resulting in forest fires.
  • The bulk of forest fires in India occurs in the tropical dry forests of our country, an umbrella category encompassing scrub, savanna grassland, dry and moist-deciduous forests. Almost 70% of forests in India are composed of these types.
  • The roots of our current fire crisis lie squarely in the blanket implementation of a no-fire forest policy. This ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of fire protection is perhaps incompatible with the ecology of India’s tropical dry forests.
  • Supply of fuel by ample invasive species present in the forests also aid the spread of forest fires. Authorities have failed in preventing the spread of such species.

 

But, why are forest fires good?

  • 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.
  • Recent research on the ecology and bio-geographical origin of these forests indicates that fire occurrence and light availability are important factors that maintain the ecosystem.
  • Field ecological research indicates that many tree species distinct to dry forests have co-evolved with fires and have developed fire-resistance features like thick, spongy bark, and can re-sprout from rootstock in response to fire.
  • Also, frequent, low-intensity forest fires possibly prevent the proliferation of many invasive species which act as fuel for the spread of forest fires. Various studies and indigenous knowledge indicate that early dry season fires burn less hot, and are far less detrimental to vegetation than peak dry season fires which burn much hotter.

 

Who has the power to wield fire in India’s tropical dry forests?

The answer exposes the fault lines among contesting groups of stakeholders. Forest dwellers set fire to forests to clear walking paths, to collect non-timber forest products like gooseberry and mahua flowers, and to encourage the fresh growth of grass for their livestock, and sometimes as a part of ritual practice.

  • Agriculturists set fire to hill forests so that the fertilising ash from fire washes down to their fields with the monsoon rains. For the forest dweller, therefore, fires have cultural and livelihood significance.
  • The forest department, on the other hand, has historically prevented fire in order to protect timber stocks, and initiated a system of fire-lines around valuable timber ‘compartments’ or coupes. By burning the fire-lines before the onset of summer, forest fires, if they occurred, could be confined to a few compartments.
  • More recently however, fire has been used as a management tool to increase the density of herbivores in tropical dry forests. The logic for this kind of burning is also related to the creation of fresh grass, but this time for consumption by wild herbivores rather than by cattle.
  • In a centralised, top-down hierarchical system, these two broad ways of wielding fire are clearly incompatible. By enacting legislation that made the setting of forest fires an offence, the forest department gradually legitimised one world view of forests as timber and wildlife production systems and ignored other world views that envisioned forests as cultural and livelihood spaces.

 

Significance of forests:

As per the latest state of forests report of the Forest Survey of India the actual forest cover of India is about 21% of the geographic area, corresponding to 63.3 million ha. Only 38 million ha of forests are well stocked (crown density above 40%). This resource has to meet the demand of a population of 950 million people and around 450 million cattle. As such, country has to meet the needs of 16% of the world’s population from 1% of the world forest resources. The same forest has also to cater for the 19% of the world cattle population. The forests of the country are therefore, under tremendous pressure. 

 

Way ahead:

Fighting fires with minimal equipment in challenging terrain is a thankless task that poses grave risks. It is perhaps time to ask whether a strict no-fire policy is relevant in ecological and societal contexts, rather than raise ineffective questions about how forest fires can be controlled or prevented through technology.

 

Conclusion:

Instead of viewing forest fires as being purely destructive in nature, forest managers should perhaps expand their world view and be more inclusive to information from ecological and local knowledge systems that view fires as being both rejuvenating and revitalising.