Natural Disasters

Odisha experiencing the country’s worst forest fires again, 642 incidents in March

Prolonged dry spell, accumulation of dry leaves, anthropogenic reasons behind crisis

By Hrusikesh Mohanty
Published: Thursday 09 March 2023
Photo: Hrusikesh Mohanty

Forest fires continue to rage in Odisha after the state recorded 642 large fire incidents from March 2-9, 2023 — the highest in the country during the period, according to the Forest Survey of India (FSI) data. 

On March 9, the eastern state recorded 96 major fires in different jungles — also highest in the country. From all the other states combined, 189 active fire incidents were reported the same day, according to FSI.

Odisha has recorded 871 large forest fires since November 1, 2022, the beginning of the forest fire seasons. This is also a national record for the season, official data showed. It was followed by Andhra Pradesh (754), Karnataka (642), Telangana(447) and Madhya Pradesh (316). 

A sudden jump in the incidents of fires across Odisha resulted in a massive loss of flora and fauna in the state’s forests.

A prolonged dry spell since October 2022 and accumulation of inflammable materials such as dry leaves are some of the reasons that started these forest fires, said Debidutta Biswal, principal chief conservator of forests, Odisha. 

Some of the fires may have also been caused by human-made reasons, the expert added. The tribal people set fire on forests for shifting cultivation, collection of mahua flowers and kendu leaves, he noted.

Forests are set on fire to cultivate turmeric in Baliguda forest division in Kandhamal district, said Sudhakar Mohapatra, a senior retired forest officer.

Regeneration of the forests will be affected due to the wildfires, said SN Patra, president, Odisha Environment Society. The seeds which are supposed to germinate in the monsoon rain get burnt due to ground fires in the forest areas, affecting the forest growth, added Patra, who is a botanist.

Forest fires result in the loss of timber, fruit-bearing trees and medicinal plants. They also pose a threat to the wildlife and their habitat areas, said Biswajit Mohanty, former member of the National Board for Wildlife.

The forest department did not learn from the 2021 forest fires, when a record 51,968 forest fire incidents occured in the state. Massive fires had broken out in Similipal National Park in Mayurbhanj district, which is one of the major biospheres of Asia, he said.

Read more: Similipal fire shines light on dark hole in India’s real-time air quality monitoring network

After that, the Odisha government had constituted a nine-member task force, Mohanty added, to review the incidents of forest fire, its causes and suggest improvements in standard operating procedures for better fire management and containing the situation. “The task force report is yet to be made public.”

Since forest staff were unable to contain the forest fires, Mohanaty urged the government to entrust the Gram Sabhas with adequate funds to handle such crises. “The first hour of the forest fire is crucial to control the blaze. It can be possible only by the local people who live in the forest area,” he said.

Patra also called for involvement of the local community and rejuvenating the existing water bodies inside the forests to control the fires.

But the forest fires may abate soon with the oncoming rains, as predicted by the India Meteorological Department’s regional centre in Bhubaneswar, and an active western disturbance, a senior forest officer said. “A spell of rain is enough to check the rapid spread of fires.”

The number of active fires has been on a decline in the last three days, he added. “While 203 forest fires were sighted in the state on March 7, the number was down to 121 and 96 on March 8 and 9, respectively.”

Nearly 3,000 forest personnel have been engaged to control the state-wide fires, Biswal said. Besides, 16,000 Vana Surakshya Samitis and 280 special squads are also on the ground trying to douse the fires, he added. 

The members of women self-help groups have been organising awareness campaigns and involved in efforts to stop  the fires, the official noted. 

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