Climate Change

Climate Change is real: Unusual early summer causes wildfires in Kerala

Wildfires have been reported from the buffer zone of Silent Valley National Park apart from Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Attappadi Reserve Forest and Walayar Reserve Forest

By K A Shaji
Published: Thursday 17 March 2022
Firefighters trying to douse flames in Kerala. Photo: KA Shaji

Kerala has witnessed raging wildfires in the last four days as an unusually early summer has raised temperatures by two to three degrees Celsius above average. The state’s flora and fauna have suffered as a result of the climate change-induced extreme weather events.

Wildfires have been reported from the buffer zone of the Silent Valley National Park apart from Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Attappadi Reserve Forest and Walayar Reserve Forest.

Over 800 hectares of forest area and grasslands have been lost in the fires despite preventive measures like creation of fire lines and removal of dead wood, according to a rough initial estimate of the forest department.

The threat of wildfires is highly prevalent in other forest regions of Kerala such as Athirapally, Parambikulam, Marayoor, Thenmala and Agasthyarkoodam. The state fears more such incidents as the summer progresses.

Forest officials have accused local miscreants of setting fire to the dried undergrowth in the buffer zone of Silent Valley, resulting in massive destruction.

Kerala forest minister AK Saseendran has ordered a high profile investigation into the recurring incidents of wildfires. Forest experts, though, believe that the early summer and scorching heat have aggravated the threat of human-made wildfires.

It took three days of intensive efforts to douse the flames at Thathengalam, Mekkalapara, Kottopadam and Puthupadam, which constitute the buffer zone of Silent Valley.

The fires destroyed both, forest areas and adjoining human settlements in these places. Wildlife casualties are yet to be ascertained.

The forests of Walayar between Palakkad and Tamil Nadu’s second-largest city Coimbatore, witnessed the season’s first wildfire March 12, 2022. Officials said the impact was heavy in the Attappallam area.

In Attappady, a rain-shadow region, substantial forest tracts are still burning and most are inaccessible to firefighters. In Wayanad district, forests in the Vellamunda region witnessed massive fires in the last four days.

A grassland area in Vellamunda was destroyed in the fires, according to Darshan Gattani, Wayanad divisional forest officer.

He said the escalating heat, rising temperature and changes in wind patterns contribute to the wildfires, a threat all likely to be augmented in the coming days.

The department has identified some forest areas of Kalpetta, Banasura Sagar and Perinchery Hills, which are highly prone to wildfires and started advance initiatives to avert emergencies.

Srinivas Kurra, Palakkad divisional forest officer, said the district faces the threat of wildfires as it has vast forest areas, compared to other parts of the state.

Silent Valley, Attappady, Walayar and Parambikulam belong to Palakkad. Palakkad has a different forest topography compared to other parts of the state.

Fires in hilly areas with rocky patches and grassy areas pose a considerable challenge. They require more time, resources and people.

Firefighters engage in their activities only in the evenings, nights and early morning hours as the heat and temperatures are too high during the daytime.

Officials said the situation would turn worse by mid-April. In 2021, Kerala lost 1,114 hectares of forests to fires and the financial loss was pegged at Rs 53,100.

“Causing forest fires is illegal under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972. I have instructed officials to bring those who set fire to forests to book and initiate stringent legal measures against them,” Saseendran said.

He said that the lack of summer rains, humidity and high temperature complicated the situation.

Silent Valley National Park wildlife warden S Vinod pointed out that dry leaves that have fallen over the years, tree trunks and bamboo saplings caught fire first in the buffer zone. The flames then spread to the remaining forests.

Farmers in Palakkad fear an escalation of human-wildlife conflicts due to the wildfires. Animals have already started moving out of the forests, fearing fire and searching for water.

Too much heat and quick dehydration made fire-fighting difficult on steep hills, Kurra said. Firefighters can only climb the hills in the evenings.

Silent Valley National park is one of the undisturbed tracts of the south Western Ghats rainforests and tropical evergreen forests in India.

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