Climate change adds fuel

Bandipur Forest Fire

Silhouette of a bird seen against flames of a forest fire at Bandipur Tiger Reserve, in Bandipur on Feb 23, 2019. PTI

A major fire broke out in Bandipur National Park and in some patches of the adjoining Protected Areas (PAs) of Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu) and Wayanad (Kerala) in the last week of February. The fire also damaged patches of Nagarahole National Park and Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (BRT sanctuary). The areas affected are in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, rich in biodiversity and the best inviolate area for wild tigers on earth. The conservation of the reserve has to be the top-most priority of the Forest departments of the states involved.

Also, at the same time, a fire in a car parking area during the Bengaluru Aero India 2019 gutted some 300 cars. A similar incident occurred in a car parking area in Chennai around the same time, in which nearly 200 cars were gutted.

Forests are subjected to grazing, encroachments, illicit cutting of trees, etc. In the process, the miscreants, such as cattle grazers, non-timber forest produce (NTFP) collectors, and fuel-wood collectors set fire to forest patches. Sometimes, nearby locals aggrieved with some action of the Forest department also do so to take revenge. Although forests can also catch fire due to lightning, most fires are man-made. Forest fires are annually repeated after the fall of leaves in summer when inflammable/combustible materials in the forest are dry. Forest fires contribute to release of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere which leads to global warming.

As the Earth’s climate warms up and turns drier, wildfires are becoming more destructive. But scientists have observed another phenomenon, too, that seems to help these fires spread farther now. This is the formation of clouds known as “pyrocumulonimbus”, or “pyroCbs” that give rise to thunderstorms.

“Lightning from these storms can spark additional blazes far away and send plumes of smoke and aerosols into the stratosphere,” explains an article on the ‘Yale Environment 360’ website, citing how lightning and thunderstorm some 35 km away from a fire helped spread it to another patch of forest.

The storms can be moving very fast and can throw ambers up to five km away from the place under fire, virtually making fire-fighting impossible. There would be no rains even if there is heavy cloud, as the heat and the particulates in the smoke every time trigger a dynamic reaction arresting the ability of the cloud to produce rains. The lightning and thunderstorm move across adjoining landscapes, triggering more fire.

The article further adds that storms can have as high energy as required for moderate-sized volcanic eruption. Thus, smoke and ash from wildfires are thrown into the atmosphere, which results in pollution. The smoke from such fires can drift across the world.

The clouds are completely dark as they get covered by abundant smoke. Such storms can hit the region with greater frequency as wildfires are becoming more intense. Storms are also increasing in places where they have never occurred, like Texas, Portugal, South Africa and Argentina.

Young regeneration is burnt in wildfires. The composition of species changes and only fire-resistant species survive. Eventually, forests degrade and the direct and indirect benefits from it erode. Fire control measures should therefore be priority for the government.

There are other sources which can cause fire. The magma chamber located inside and up to 50 km below earth surface contains helium, which is a combustible substance. Even if the volcano is not active, sometimes primitive helium is leaked out through cracks and fissures in the upper surface of earth.

The helium so escaped gets deposited in the atmosphere and may get ignited. Wildfires in urban areas are caused by methane gas which is generated by decomposition of garbage. All garbage dumps must be guarded and fire protection measures taken up. Some urban lakes into which untreated sewage is discharged produce methane and hydrocarbons, which can become the source of fire.

Despite intensive aerial spraying of water, the fires in California forests often take two weeks to control. The adjoining area of Yellowstone National Park sits on a fault where a big volcano is waiting to erupt. There are indications to this effect as thermal signatures are being received, tremors being observed, rivers are boiling and hot streams are flowing. However, enough helium is escaping from the magma causing fire in California forests.

Global cooling

Climate change also includes global cooling. We experienced global cooling all over in the northern hemisphere recently. Scientists have explained the reason for unprecedented snowfall and temperature dropping to as low as -400 Centigrade in Chicago last winter. There are many active volcanoes located around the equator where ash can go up to 60 km above the earth’s surface and can also drift towards polar and arctic regions. The phenomenon called ‘polar vortex’ explains how this ash blocks the sun, resulting in excessive snowfall in the region. The eruption of a super volcano can prevent sunrays for a considerable period and impact food production.

With regard to Bandipur fire, although Forest department has to take the blame for not maintaining proper fire lines during December and January, they have to be provided with the arrangement of aerial spraying of water to control fires quickly. The department has to be sincere in clearing the fire lines and burning.

The inflammable materials such as lantana, fallen trees, dry bamboo, grasses and leaves in the forest will have to be managed. Additional fire watchers may have to be engaged to keep vigil across the length and breadth of the forests. The clearing of fire lines would divide the forests into different fire blocks. If the fire lines are maintained, even if there is accidental fire in one block, it will not spread to other blocks.

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

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Climate change adds fuel

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