Forest fires cry out for attention

Along with preventive measures, awareness campaigns should be held in areas adjoining forest land.

For the last few days wildfires have wreaked havoc on acres of precious forest in Bandipur Tiger reserve and Rajiv Gandhi National Park of Karnataka, the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary of Tamil Nadu and the Wayanad wild life sanctuary of Kerala.

All these three forests together constitute the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve which encompasses 5,520 km in the Western Ghats. A huge chunk of the Thirumala forests of Andhra Pradesh also met with the same fate. The climatic condition in south India is determined by this forests tract and hence even minute changes in this structure would have serious repercussions.

The fire destroyed acres of forests. More than 800 acres in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, about 250 hectares of Nagerhole forests and around 300 hectares in Wayanad Wild Life Sanctuary are said to have been destroyed. Forest fires pose a threat not only to the forest wealth but also to the entire regime of fauna and flora seriously disturbing the bio-diversity and the ecology and environment of a region. Small and big wild animals, rare plant species, butterflies and micro organisms are also wiped out. The fire creates serious health hazards by producing smoke and noxious gases. The burning of vegetation gives off carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, hydrocarbons, nitric oxide and nitrous oxide, that lead to global warming and ozone layer depletion.

About 90 per cent of the forest fires in India are created by humans. India witnessed the most severe forest fires in the summer of 1995 in the hills of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. The fires were very severe and attracted the attention of whole nation. An area of 677,700 ha was affected Generally, the fire spreads only if there is continuous supply of fuel (dry vegetation) along its path.

Creating firebreaksThe best way to control a forest fire, therefore, is to prevent it from spreading, which can be done by creating firebreaks in the shape of small clearings called "Forest Fire Line” in the forests. Normally, even before summer, arrangements including setting up of fire-lines to prevent the spread of wildfires are made. This year also funds have been used to make such arrangements, but it should be investigated how effective this has been.

There are no scientific processes to douse wildfires. They are normally checked through a combined effort of Forest Department officials, locals and police. Helicopters should be deployed to check forest blaze and people including fire-watchers should be given training to check the outbreak of forest fire. Lack of personnel and adequate facilities are the issues that hamper fire-fighting efforts. The difficulty for Fire Force vehicles to reach deep into the forests in the event of wildfire makes the problem further hard to handle.

The Village Forest Committees (VFCs), farmers and tribals should be taken into confidence so that the forest department offices are kept informed about various issues inside the forests. Along with preventive measures, awareness campaigns should be held in areas adjoining forest land. The realisation that people residing in areas adjoining forests and those who live in forests are not foes but friends of forest department is vital. 

Forest officials themselves should dispel the wrong perception of these people and ensure their participation in efforts to check wildfires. There is need for extra vigil on highways during summer to restrain tourists and other travellers from indulging in smoking and other unlawful activities inside forest.

The assaults on forests have gone up in recent times on various grounds. The Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports for conservation of Western Ghats and the resultant revolt against them being mislead by wrong campaigns have distorted the mindset of farmers residing in the periphery of forests and they have slowly turned adversaries of their very life supporting forests.

It is imperative to probe and fix the issue on a war- footing to prevent further loss. Since 1947 river valley projects, mining, agriculture, townships, industries, roads and other similar ‘developmental’ activities have destroyed a staggering 5.3 million hectare of forest area in India. Effective closed-canopy forest in India today is as low as four per cent out of which hardly one percent is fully protected. If we continue to remain passive spectators of forest destruction we will be poorer in spirit, health, and even in our pockets.

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