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Disaster Management: Taming Forest Fires in India



Introduction

The most common hazard in forests is forests fire. Forests fires are as old as the forests themselves. They pose a threat not only to the forest wealth but also to the entire regime to fauna and flora seriously disturbing the bio-diversity and the ecology and environment of a region.

Come Feb-March every year, the print media is filled with reports of fires in the dry deciduous forests of India, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha.

During summer, when there is no rain for months, the forests become littered with dry senescent leaves and twinges, which could burst into flames ignited by the slightest spark. The Himalayan forests, particularly, Garhwal Himalayas have been burning regularly during the last few summers, with colossal loss of vegetation cover of that region.

Causes of Forest Fire

Forest fires are caused by Natural causes as well as Man-made causes

  • Natural causes- Many forest fires start from natural causes such as lightning which set trees on fire. However, rain extinguishes such fires without causing much damage. High atmospheric temperatures and dryness (low humidity) offer favourable circumstance for a fire to start.
  • Man-made causes- Fire is caused when a source of fire like naked flame, cigarette or bidi, electric spark or any source of ignition comes into contact with inflammable material.

Classification of Forest Fire

Forest fire can broadly be classified into three categories;

  • Natural or controlled forest fire.
  • Forest fires caused by heat generated in the litter and other biomes in summer through carelessness of people (human neglect) and
  • Forest fires purposely caused by local inhabitants.

Types of Forest Fire

There are two types of forest fire i) Surface Fire and ii) Crown Fire 

Surface Fire– A forest fire may burn primarily as a surface fire, spreading along the ground as the surface litter (senescent leaves and twigs and dry grasses etc.) on the forest floor and is engulfed by the spreading flames.

Crown Fire- The other type of forest fire is a crown fire in which the crown of trees and shrubs burn, 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 hill 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, there is less likelihood of it spreading downwards.

Impacts of Forest Fires on Biological Environment

  • Forest fires also pose serious health hazards by producing smoke and noxious gases, as the events in Indonesia after the forest fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in 1977 have shown.
  • The burning of vegetation gives off not only carbon dioxide but also a host of other, noxious gases (Greenhouse gases) such as carbon monoxide, methane, hydrocarbons, nitric oxide and nitrous oxide, that lead to global warming and ozone layer depletion.
  • Consequently, thousands of people suffered from serious respiratory problems due to these toxic gases.
  • Burning forests and grasslands also add to already serious threat of global warming. Recent measurement suggest that biomass burning may be a significant global source of methyl bromide, which is an ozone depleting chemical.

Loop holes in preparedness and Mitigation Measures

  • During the British period, fire was prevented in the summer through removal of forest litter all along the forest boundary. This was called “Forest Fire Line” This line used to prevent fire breaking into the forest from one compartment to another. The collected litter was burnt in isolation.
  • The roots of our current fire crisis lie squarely in the blanket implementation of this colonial era 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.
  • Generally, the fire spreads only if there is continuous supply of fuel (Dry vegetation) along its path. For example, the fires in Bandipur Tiger Reserve were immensely difficult to control because of ample fuel supplied by the alien invasive species Lantana Camara.
  • Tribal elders of the area predict that future forest fires will be difficult to control unless Lantana biomass is physically reduced first.

Use of Indigenous Knowledge

  • Forest-dwellers of the area favour frequent, small forest fires.
  • 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.
  • Findings from conventional scientific studies also support these insights from indigenous knowledge, and 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.

In a centralised, top-down hierarchical system like Indian Forest Service, the two broad ways of wielding fire from the Tribals and forest officers 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
  • The best way to control a forest fire is therefore, to prevent it from spreading, which can be done by creating firebreaks in the shape of small clearings of ditches in the forests

Other Precautions

The followings are the important precautions against fire:

  • To keep the source of fire or source of ignition separated from combustible and inflammable material.
  • To keep the source of fire under watch and control.
  • Not allow combustible or inflammable material to pile up unnecessarily and to stock the same as per procedure recommended for safe storage of such combustible or inflammable material.
  • To adopt safe practices in areas near forests viz. factories, coalmines, oil stores, chemical plants and even in household kitchens.
  • To incorporate fire reducing and fire fighting techniques and equipment while planning a building or coal mining operation.
  • In case of forest fires, the volunteer teams are essential not only for fire fighting but also to keep watch on the start of forest and sound an alert
  • To arrange fire fighting drills frequently.

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.

Give the people their forests back and include them as the stakeholders in protecting the forests. After all, their lives depend on it. They stand to lose — and gain — the most.


Questions


  1. The strict no-fire policy seems to be the cause for the increase in the raging forest fires. Examine the statement in the light of recent Forest fires in India.
  2. There is an alternative view that, forest fires are beneficial to the replenishment of forests. Critically discuss.

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