Here are some ways to combat forest fires in chir pine belt of Uttarakhand

The plantation of suitable broad-leaved species like oak and rhododendron can help lower the overall fire susceptibility

By Shubhashree Sahu, Arvind Bijalwan
Published: Thursday 18 May 2023
Representative photo: iStock.
Representative photo: iStock. Representative photo: iStock.

Uttarakhand accounts for 1.6 per cent of India’s total geographical area. But in terms of forest cover, the state accounts for 45 per cent, in contrast to national forest cover of just 21.67 per cent. This signifies Uttarakhand’s rich biological heritage.

The floral composition of the state — located in the sub-tropical latitudinal range — is majorly narrow-leaved species like Pinus, Picea and Abies. These species are rich in organic polymers, making them vulnerable to forest fires. When exposed to low temperatures and humidity, these organic residues (plant-based litter) can trigger fire outbreaks.

In addition, the dry needles of pine serve as a primary contributor to forest fires. Of the total forest land in Uttarakhand, 26 per cent is covered by pine trees. During fire incidents, the forest floor gets cleared of broad-leaved species. This creates a conducive environment for pine to propagate. 

Also read: India’s forest fires are getting bigger and hotter, like the rest of the world

The natural ecology of this sub-tropical region is fire-sensitive and most human habitation here is linked to forests. In addition, human-made fires, which were frequent in the state, have recently seen a hike.

In the last three months, Uttarakhand has recorded at least 1,791 forest fires that have scorched over 2,891 hectares of forest land, including 2,079 hectares of reserve forest areas, The Indian Express reported.

There were 470 fire incidents in the state’s forests between November 2020 and January 2021. The figure for the same period in the previous year was 39. These incidents have caused estimated damage to property worth over Rs 74 lakh and the death of at least one person.

From the colonial regime to the late 1980s, forests were viewed from a utilitarian perspective. But surprisingly, there were checks on the number of fire-prone species like pine.

In the post-independence era, the forest management approach became both production and protection oriented. The enaction of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 viewed forestry from a conservation-centric approach. The Act banned tree felling beyond an altitude of 1,000 metres. But this had an unintentional impact; the pine population became unregulated, increasing the fire susceptibility of forests.

Timber smugglers also threaten the forest ecosystem by creating artificial fires to divert the attention of officials. Forest fire also induces the outward movement of wild animals, creating an opportunity for hunters and smugglers.

Developmental activities also play a major role in fire hazards. The road network in Uttrakhand has advanced over the last two decades. As a result, the accessibility to forests enhanced over the years, leading to more human-induced fire hazards. 

Nearly 36 per cent of India’s forests are prone to frequent fires, according to the Forest Survey of India (FSI). Higher fire incidents are reported in March, April and May due to the ample availability of dry biomass following the onset of the summer season. Most forest fires are man-made owing to changes in agriculture and unchecked land-use patterns, according to experts.

Forest fires intensifying mainly in mid-February and usually continuing till mid-June is a major problem for the hilly state, which is covered by forests in almost 71 per cent of its geographical area.

Also read: Here is why forest fires now pose a threat to the very survival of Uttarakhand’s unique biodiversity

In 2021, Uttarakhand was ranked second in the country after Madhya Pradesh in terms of active instances of fire, according to FSI. There were 93 active instances of fire in Madhya Pradesh and 71 in Uttarakhand. 

Moreover, the state received only 10.9 millimetres of rainfall from January-March 2021 against the usual 54.9 mm — a deficit of nearly 80 per cent. The district of Pauri, which has been most affected by fires, received the least rain, a measly 3.1 mm, against the usual 36.6 mm. The deficit in Pauri has been 92 per cent.

Nishant Verma, the chief conservator of forests, admitted that the number of forest fires this year increased significantly in April, mainly due to an unexpected rise in temperature and less rain. Strong wind velocity also contributed majorly to spreading the fires fast across the jungles, he added. Officials admit that the situation is alarming, especially during the peak time for forest fires – the third week of May when the temperatures are the highest.

Recently, the migration of people from hills to plains and reduced dependency on forest-based residues has also aggravated fire occurrences. Scientists have recently come up with studies on the use of dried pine needles in making briquettes, compost, boards, tiles etc. This will help in the removal of inflammable substances along with supporting the small-scale cottage industries. 

The plantation of suitable broad-leaved species like oak and rhododendron can help lower the overall fire susceptibility. 

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change listed the following methods to prevent and control a forest fire: Construction of watch towers for early detection; deployment of fire watchers; creation and maintenance of fire lines, besides involvement of local communities.

The use of remote sensing technology and satellite data for detecting active forest fires is also advised. Several fire management projects have been launched by the state as well as the Union government; the success lies in execution.

Exclusive recruitment of forest fire-fighting staff equipped with modern technologies becomes essential for hilly terrains like Uttarakhand. Some initiatives like Joint Forest Management (JFM), Van panchayats and communication via electronic and social media, radio and television can altogether assist in enhancing public awareness.

The best forest management strategy can be achieved through active multi-sectoral involvement. Proper management of the forests with the participation of locals can regulate the frequency and intensity of fire incidents in the predominant chir pine belt of Uttrakhand.

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