Climate Change

Climate crisis: Uttarakhand may see forest fires round the year

It is winters but state forests are on fire. Experts say lack of soil moisture due to insufficent rainfall aided spread

By Varsha Singh
Published: Wednesday 06 January 2021
Fire at Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary. Photo: Varsha Singh

It’s freezing in Uttarakhand but the forests are on fire. The ‘fire season’ is likely to be a year-long phenomenon due to rising temperature, according to state forest minister Harak Singh Rawat.

Amit Tanwar, divisional forest officer (DFO) of Kedarnath where fires have been raging this winter, said the fires in winters were unusual. The town did not witness any forest fire in summers. He said a lack of soil moisture due to a weak monsoon may have aided the spread, but the state would probe if the fires were man-induced.  

The state recorded 236 wildfire incidents between October 1, 2020 and January 4, 2021. Reserve forests in the Garwal region lost 129 hectares of forest cover (out of total 188 hectares) to 96 counts of fire incidents. Civil forests recorded 51 counts of wildfire incidents.

Reserve forests in Kumaon region lost 89.52 hectares of forest cover to 64 counts of fire incidents; civil forest lost 44.35 hectares to 25 counts. The fires caused a loss of Rs 460,110 to the state.

Bikram Singh, director, Dehradun meteorological centre, said the city experienced low rainfall between October and December. “It was largely a dry monsoon. The city experienced 71 per cent deficit rain between October and December,” he said.

The region usually records 60.5 millimetres of rainfall annually; it was merely 17.8 mm in 2020. In 2019, it recorded 114.2 mm rainfall; 25.5 mm in 2018; 21.3 mm in 2017 and 16.2 mm in 2016.

“The fire season would last an entire year. Forest fires are directly linked to soil moisture. The forest rivers are drying up,” forest hydrology expert JS Rawat said. 

A weak monsoon subsequently leading to less moisture in the soil as well as insufficient snowfall this season aided fire spread, according to Vaibhav Singh, DFO, Rudraprayag.

In such a situation, a tiny spark of fire can spread far and wide, he added.

The Supreme Court January 4 heard a plea on Uttarakhand fires. The court will hear the matter again in a week.

Uttarakhand has lost 44,000 hectares of forest cover since it became a state in 2000.   

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