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Forest Fires

Forest fires are an annual occurrence in different states of India, including Odisha, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh.

Since the beginning of 2021, there has been a series of forest fires in Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland-Manipur border, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, including in wildlife sanctuaries. April-May is the month when forest fires become a natural occurrence in different regions of the country. But forest fires are 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.

Uttarakhand has witnessed over 1,000 incidents of fire over the last six months,

January saw prolonged fires in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh (Kullu Valley) and Nagaland-Manipur border (Dzukou Valley). The ongoing one in Nainital began in March-end. The Simlipal National Park in Odisha saw a major fire between February-end and early March.

Recent fires include those in Bandhavgarh Forest Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, and in sanctuaries for the Asiatic lion and therefore the great Indian bustard in Gujarat.

What factors make forest fires a concern?

  1. Forests play a vital role in mitigation and adaptation to global climate change.
  2. They act as a sink, reservoir and source of carbon. A healthy forest stores and sequesters more carbon than the other terrestrial ecosystem.
  3. Forest fires can have multiple adverse effects on the forest cover, soil, tree growth, vegetation, and the overall flora and fauna. Fires render large areas of forest useless and leave behind ash, making it unfit for any biotic growth and activity,
  4. Heat generated during the fire destroys animal habitats. The quality of soil decreases with the alteration in the composition of the soil. Soil moisture and fertility, too, is affected. Thus forests can shrink in size. Even, the trees that survive fire, They remain stunted and their growth is severely affected.

In India, with 1.70 lakh villages in close proximity to forests (Census 2011), the livelihood of several crores of individuals depends on fuelwood, bamboo, fodder, and little timber.

Forest fires as Natural Event

In India, forest fires are most ordinarily reported during March and April, when the ground surface has large quantities of dry wood, logs, dead leaves, stumps, dry grass and weeds that can lit the forests easily even with a small trigger.

  1. Forest fires are a phenomenon and are sure to happen periodically.
  2. Most of the times the trigger is man made although lightning and friction can also start forest fires.
  3. Forest fires promote flowering, branching and seedling establishment.
  4. Fires limited to the surface may help in the natural regeneration of forests.
  5. The heating of the soil may lead to helpful microbial activity, and hasten decaying processes that are useful for the vegetation.
  6. As a natural event Forest fire in Uttrakhand is a common during the summer season mainly due to the presence of Chir pine trees.
  7. Extreme heat and dryness, friction created by rubbing of branches with one another even have been known to initiate fire.

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.

In Uttarakhand, the lack of soil moisture is being seen as a key factor.

Fires of longer duration, increasing intensity, higher frequency and highly inflammable nature are all being linked to global climate change.

Causes of forest fires, manmade event

More than 95% of wildfires in India are created and are readily man-made,

  1. People trigger forest fires by burning dry leaves.
  2. Villagers can apathetically trigger fires.
  3. Villagers burn leaves and grasses in order to get better growth of grass the following year.
  4. Forest dwellers burn the needles of the chir pine, which form a slippery carpet on the ground.
  5. In the Terai region, honey collectors start fires to drive away bees.
  6. The diversion of spring water for human uses gradually decreased the moisture content of the forest floor
  7. The residents of Uttrakhand villages who previously check the buildup of highly inflammable Chir pine have migrated to urban areas.

Impact

  1. Can even lead to local extinction of species.
  2. Oak forests are vital for the local villages, as their dead leaves are used as compost for terrace farming;
  3. The real losses however, are ecological and social — those of biodiversity, timber, soil moisture and nutrients, etc.,

Management by Government

Since 2004, the FSI developed the fire Alert System now uses satellite information gathered from NASA and ISRO.

Real-time fire information from identified fire hotspots is gathered using MODIS sensors meaning Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (1km by 1km grid) and electronically transmitted to FSI.

Other suggestions.

  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 could be provided with appropriate incentives to stay back
  4. Effective mass utilization of pine needles with the help of technological and industrial support
  5. Use the traditional method of “beating the fire down” with green branches..
  6. Use of Mi-17s flying sorties to dump water
  7. More modern systems of fire monitoring alongside traditional methods like maintaining fire lines,
  8. Greater interaction between villagers and the Forest Department
  9. Adoption of “counter fire” with forest officials starting fires from the opposite end of a forest to check the flames at a defined boundary.
  10. Banning people from carrying matchboxes to forests.
  11. Awareness campaigns.

Government response

The post fire scenario are generally met with a typical knee-jerk reaction by the Government

Sometimes, the government as a knee-jerk reaction proposes mass cutting of Chir pine forest as if it is the “culprit” for the forest fire. While it’s imperative to notice that, apart from the overall virtues of a natural forest, Chir pine forests are unique. Chir pine trees aren’t harmful they instead have plenty of advantages like Turpentine oil, Rosin, handicraft, aesthetics, curing respiratory problems and that they perform vital ecological services also. Mass deforestation of Chir pain would adversely affect Uttrakhand’s ecology and the glaciers and consequently India.

Importance of local wisdom in combating forest fire

Local wisdom may be a body of information which has evolved with the life experiences of individuals.

Before the arrival of capitalism, growth of nationalism and globalization, there have been small communities which are accustomed to pay attention of their natural and cultural heritage. These communities constitute a bunch of individuals who share similar hopes and goals who features a sense of unity and maintain a stable identity within the face of rapid societal change.

However, with the expansion of globalization, these communities are now heavily influenced by the so called “modern” ideas of the western countries which gave them a way of backwardness about themselves. The result is abandonment of their heritage in the form of 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 dealing with the character 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 because of which started to, identify themselves as backward, rural and poor. This idea proved pretty costly in Uttrakhand.

The issue of removal of pine needles from the forests couldn’t be addressed thanks to an indirect issue of mass migration. The villager’s unwillingness to remain within the village couldn’t be ensure because of which there was a scarcity of man power to hold out essential procedures which could have prevented the fire. The villagers do not think of staying 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 getting more and more dependent on the govt. to unravel their day-to-day problems. These communities, which were initially assets to India, are now totally hooked in to the govt. to resolve their problems.

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

Also, the National Policy for fire presently focuses on international technology transfer and international educational program. In the present plan the flow of knowledge and technology is especially from top to bottom, i.e. from the govt and allied agencies to the agricultural areas. Technology, which is that the application of knowledge domain for practical purposes, must flow both ways. However, sadly the local wisdom, i.e. the local knowledge gained from being in harmony and balance with nature is ignored. Local knowledge can be both abstract and concrete. But its importance lies within the incontrovertible fact that it’s derived from the sensible experiences of life events. The national policy to tackle fire could are simpler has it been inclusive of the local wisdom.

Uttrakhand which is losing its heritage of the model of society-governance partnership and use of local wisdom must revive it, spread it and replicate it.

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 livehood 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 wisdoms can be helpful in solving the problems of fires in sustainable manner.

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