Forest fires: time-tested preventive operating methods key

March 10, 2017,

The devastating forest fire at Bandipur has resulted in the tragic demise of a forest guard and serious injuries to the Ranger and some personnel.

Large swathes of tiger habitat, that support high densities of wild animals, have been burnt. It would be only logical to presume that many vulnerable species including young ones of mammals would not have escaped the engulfing blaze even though evidence may never be found.

Could this disastrous incident have been avoided? Most certainly, yes. Just like the military adage — ‘The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war’ — three key strategies – Prevention, Preparedness and Perpetual vigilance will substantially reduce the risk to both personnel and forests. These do not call for ‘hi-tech’ solutions like deployment of choppers etc, but sincere implementation of time tested operating procedures developed by experienced forest officers over the years.

Fire prevention is the key: Comprehensive fire prevention work starts with equitable hiring of local people as fire watchers and actually deploying them on-ground under experienced forest staff. Field officers who have successfully prevented fires have prioritised this. Clearing and maintenance of fire lines, which are linear paths cut through large blocks of forests to contain fire, is then initiated.

Any trained forester will first clear the line of all undergrowth, move the debris and leaf litter to the centre of the fire line during the day. By evening, when temperatures come down and it is not windy, the debris is burnt with sufficient staff present to prevent fire from spreading. Extreme care must be taken to ensure that the burnt logs/debris are fully extinguished before leaving. When proper fire line tracing which burns even dry grass is done, it will act as an effective fire break.

Preparedness to tackle any eventuality is the next important step. All vehicles, wireless sets and other equipment must be serviced and kept ready. Interior patrolling roads/paths must be cleared to facilitate quick movement. Identification of potential “hot spots” based on intelligence is important to counter miscreants. Quick reaction teams of fire watchers under experienced forest staff must be deployed at various strategic locations. Fire tenders can also be stationed at suitable places.

Perpetual vigilance would include intensive patrolling along borders to prevent intrusions. Continuous 24 hour monitoring must be ensured with expert fire spotters at observation posts equipped with wireless sets to communicate with quick reaction teams that can quickly reach the spot. However, all these require committed leadership and experienced personnel.

This was demonstrated effectively in 1999 by the then director of Bhadra Tiger Reser­ve. With far fewer resources than what is currently available in Bandipur, he motivated his staff to perform, and also successfully reached out to local people.

As a result, not a single fire incident was reported in Bhadra even though there was a lot of dry bamboo. Between 2013 and 2016, two rangers leading from the front effectively controlled one of the most fire prone ranges in Nagarahole Reserve. These valuable lessons deserve to be developed as an SoP (standard operating procedure) for fire prevention.

Causes of forest fires

As against the common perception, dry bamboo culms rubbing against each other do not trigger a forest fire. Virtually all forest fires in tropical forests are man-made, caused mostly by encroachers, cattle grazers, minor forest produce collectors or disgruntled elements trying to settle scores with the Forest Department. Fires also occur when staff burn fire lines in windy conditions or with in-sufficient staff and/or supervision or sometimes due to internal differences between staff and field officers.

So what caused such a devastating fire in Bandipur this year? While the fires in Gundre and Moliyur Ranges appear to have been caused by miscreants, there are disturbing reports on the major fire in A M Gudi range. It would be absolutely necessary to ferret out the truth which is the least that can be done to respect the sacrifice of the forest guard.
Even though past enquiries have not held anybody accountable, it is hoped that the independent CID inquiry now ordered by the chief minister will establish the facts and those responsible for any laxity, negligence or even sabotage face action. One of the key issues that the inquiry must focus on is whether fire lines were actually cut and maintained in the affected areas.

As regards the debate that forest fire incidents across many areas in the state are due to adverse climatic conditions triggered by poor monsoons, a surprising fact is that some of the driest forest areas have not burnt but moist deciduous forests have been severely affected. Such simplistic explanations can therefore not be accepted and the inquiry ordered must thoroughly verify other underlying causes that are staring in the face.

Long-term solutions: Fighting forest fires is an extremely difficult job and requires years of learning and field exposure. In America, an interesting system is followed during forest fires and other incidents requiring specific expertise. An identified domain expert within the forestry department hierarchy in the park, irrespective of his seniority or rank, assumes command and directs all operations.

The regular hierarchy reverts after the incident. It may be worthwhile to evaluate this system by identifying officers/staff with special skills in fire management. It would also be necessary to include fire protection as a major subject in the curricula of guard schools and training institutes.

The current system of transfers is not based on proper analysis of officers’ skills and domain experience of wildlife management. It is therefore necessary for the government to address this in order to ensure that sufficient trained and skilled officers/ personnel from various ranks are identified and posted to high priority forest reserves.

Lastly, it is absolutely essential to impose a complete moratorium on financial year-end civil works that distract the attention of officials and eat into precious time and other resources during the fire season.

(The writer is a trustee of Wildlife First and has served on the National Board for Wildlife)

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