Forest fire is always manmade

Nearly 3,000 hectares of forest extending over 13 districts in Uttarakhand was ravaged by fire last week. The state being under the President’s rule, the Central government has put in all it’s might to control the fire.

The IAF helicopters are lifting water from the Bhimtal and pouring it on the burning forests. Besides, officials of forest and police department, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), constituting 6,000 men are fighting to arrest the catastrophe. The fire has now spread to the forests of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

Chir forests that extend to over 3,000 hectares in Himachal Pradesh, burned in the fire. As many as 378 forest fire incidents have been reported in Himachal Pradesh this summer, places affected include Shimla, Bilaspur, Solan etc. The fire has engulfed another 3,000 hectares of chir forests in Rajauri district of Jammu and Kashmir.

This fire in 3 states will take its toll on the economy as tourists would be hesitant to visit. The inferno would accelerate melting of glaciers owing to deposits of black carbon on them.

All forest fires are manmade. Communities living in and around the forests comprise of several groups of people with conflicting interests. Families living on the fringes of the forests plan to occupy the forest land. They often stoke fire during summer.

Encroachment in forest land is so rampant that some families put heap of firewood around big trees and burn it. Of course, with the cultivable ground being destroyed by the fire, they move cultivation into the forest land.

These families also do fire protection measures by burning slash all round their properties and in effect they burn forests. If the fire is uncontrolled, it can ravage hundreds of hectares of forests. The cattle grazers, who move in interior forests with their cattle, set fire to the area in summer months, so that new blades of grass become available to their cattle.

Timber mafia is believed to be the mastermind behind the recent Uttarakhand fire. It appears that the felling of green trees are forbidden in the hilly region and only dead or moribund trees are extracted and sold. The fire will hasten the death of a tree. Even when the green trees were permitted to be extracted in Karnataka, there were many instances of contractors setting fire to forest areas.

A contractor who was awarded the contract of extraction of Balagi poles from a coupe in Bhagawathi valley in Koppa division in Karnataka in 1968-69, realised that he would incur loss and had set afire the coupe to claim insurance money.

If there is fire in evergreen forests, the destruction is permanent. When all big trees are burnt, further regeneration stops. The forests of Bhagawati never recovered from this destruction.

There are instances on record to conclude that fire was set by contractors in dead and fallen coupes for manufacturing more and more dead and fallen material. Thank God that contractors are barred from entering forests after the Supreme Court order in the Godhverman case.

Foolish vengeance

Often people set fire to the forests to exact their revenge on the forest department. For example, there are NGOs that instigate tribals to set fire to the forests. Despite heavy presence of forest personnel, tribals set fire to elephant dung and escape. If  they set fire to leaves, they would be noticed and apprehended. Apprehending such culprit is difficult and the conviction rate is very low.

In olden days, trees used to be cut in fire blocks by clearing and maintaining fire lines of  3-5 metre width. Even sandal and rose wood trees in the fire lines were extracted. The fire lines were burnt and kept clean. The forest stood divided into many fire blocks, so that even if there was a fire in one block it would not extend into another. This apart, many watchers were recruited in dry seasons to extinguish forest fire.

Now we have fire fighting equipments which are too cumbersome to carry into interiors. Watchers continue to adopt the same age old technique of beating fire with green sticks and foliage. Old fire lines are presently found to be infested with invasive species like lantana. The need of the hour is to sanction a proper budget for clearing these lines and maintaining them. Effective fire protection will mitigate climate change.

(The writer is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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