Fire management lessons from Yellowstone

Last Updated 22 February 2016, 18:38 IST

Yellowstone National Park (YsNP) is located in the state of Wyoming in the US. Established in 1872, this Park is the first national park in the world.

Home to many geothermal features (as many as 10,000), YsNP has many types of ecosystem, with subalpine forests being dominant. It spans an area of 8,983 sq km, comprising lakes, canyons, rivers and mountain ranges. Yellowstone Lake, spread over 352.20 sq km, is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in North America and is centred over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest super volcano in the continent.

Home to over 1,700 species of trees and 170 exotic plants, the Park also houses many number of conifer and lodgepole pine trees. Around 60 species of mammals including grey wolf, lynx, grizzly bears, American bison, black bear, elk, and mule deer, apart from various types of fish and 311 species of birds can be found here.        

Wildfire is a natural part of most ecosystems and the plants found in Yellowstone have adapted in a variety of ways. Some species of fir, pine and spruce derive benefits from fires in regeneration, but suffer when big fires occur and kill the tree growth in vast areas. Consequently, fire was always looked upon as a destructive force but not many knew that they are, in fact, vital to the ecosystem. So until the 1970s, all such fires were suppressed, which led to an increase in dead and dying forests. This would later provide the fuel load for more fires which would be much harder, and in some cases, impossible to control.

The YsNP experienced the worst fires in the driest year of 1988, in which 3,210 sq km of forests was burnt in six big fires. The first fire started in mid July and continued in spite of good firefighting measures in place. Finally, the advent of snowfall in September, 1988 could extinguish the fire completely. This was when the government decided to set up a commission and adopted the American fire management policy in 1992.

The new policy focused on monitoring declining and dead wood quantities, soil and tree moisture, and the weather conditions to determine those areas most vulnerable to fire. This meant they would carry out ‘controlled burns or prescribed fires’ in order to avoid any further incidents. In high forests, control burns are done after deliberate removal of dead timber, the hazardous fuel pile, mechanically. This is called as ‘hazardous fuels mechanical treatment’, which gives the firefighters an opportunity to carefully control the area and quantity of wood destroyed by fire. The fuelwood load mechanically removed and taken out for public utility.  Thanks to the new policy, the subsequent fires have been contained and extinguished successfully.

One can implement such an effective model in India too. Most of the times, we aren’t aware of the root cause of such fires. Accumulated dead wood, flowered bamboo, other debris — all have been reasons for causing fires in Bhadra Tiger Reserve (TR) in 2004, Nagarahole TR in 2012 and Bandipur TR in 2014. Another reason is the quick invasion of weeds that lead to further complications. It is time Indian wildlife management realises the importance of reducing the fuelwood load in the protected areas by selectively removing dead wood from the areas prone to fires in addition to adopting controlled burning of potential sources. 

It’s highly necessary to put in a strong and effective fire management policy in place in order to deal with such situations. Learning from our past experiences with fires in forests would be highly beneficial.  We should also have a plan to tackle the invasive growth of exotic weed species like lantana, eupatorium and parthenium as they restrict the growth of trees and grass. 

Prevention is always better than cure. So, by putting such measures in place, we can not only save our precious forests, but  also many animals and their equally precious habitats.

(Published 22 February 2016, 15:54 IST)

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