Reality of forest fires

Reality of forest fires

It is vital that we make a clear distinction between forest fires that occasionally occur and annual fires that repeatedly ravage the same areas

Fighting forest fires is an extremely difficult job and requires years of learning and field exposure.

There are many misconceptions about fires in India’s deciduous forests. Bizarre theories range from fires occurring naturally when dry bamboo culms rub against each other to it being the impact of climate change and warming.

Social academics with minimal understanding of ground realities attribute it to colonial mindsets and poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act. Some ecologists surmise that accumulation of biomass due to suppression of forest fires is the underlying reason and have suggested controlled burning as a solution. The zero fire policy of the Ministry of Environment is also under debate.

Before getting into the demerits of the reasons flagged, we need to understand the prevailing ground realities. First, it is vital that we make a clear distinction between forest fires that occasionally occur and annual fires that repeatedly ravage the same areas.

A proper analysis of satellite data and management records reveals that a large percentage of fires that occur in deciduous forests are recurring annual fires in the same areas caused deliberately due to arson or negligence including lack of preventive measures. They are triggered mostly by encroachers, cattle graziers, minor forest produce collectors, or disgruntled elements trying to settle scores with the Forest Department.

Fires also occur when the staff burns fire lines in windy conditions, or due to insufficient staff and/or supervision, or sometimes due to internal differences between staff and field officers. Only those who are involved in long-term site-based conservation programmes and who understand the operational strategies of how reserves are managed will know these realities. 

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 the sincere implementation of time-tested operating procedures developed by experienced forest officers.

Prevention strategies include timely action against known culprits based on intelligence and information, equitable hiring of unemployed youth in forest settlements to act as fire watchers and initiating community outreach programmes. Clearing and maintenance of fire lines, which are linear paths that cut through large blocks of forests to contain the fire, is also an important measure.

A proper fire line tracing 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 initiate quick action. 

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 rush to the spot.

Important case studies 

Non-removal of flowered and dry bamboo and accumulation of biomass are cited as a major aggravating factor. However, two excellent case studies are worth mentioning. In 1999, the Director of Bhadra Tiger Reserve and his staff superbly handled the fire situation when bamboo had gregariously flowered. By ensuring that there was not even one single incident of fire, they effectively demonstrated that dried bamboo on its own is not a fire hazard. This also showed the key ecological role that dried bamboo plays in protecting the regenerating culms.

Between 2013 and 2016, two rangers leading from the front effectively controlled fire in the dry forests in Nagarahole Reserve. This established that robust fire protection measures implemented under effective leadership are the key.

These on-ground learnings clearly counter the naive theories of academics who are advocating controlled burning. It would be relevant to mention that such a dangerous experiment of ‘early burning’ was tried in Bandipur in the late 90s which had negative consequences and had to be stopped. 

Another analysis based on ten years of satellite data on forest fires by the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) in collaboration with the Forest department showed that two specific ranges in Nagarahole National Park had been ravaged. And when the field of visibility from the nine fire watchtowers was juxtaposed with the fire-affected areas, it revealed that the most affected areas were not visible from any watchtower. Though this was pointed out in 2013, to date no action has been initiated to establish fire watchtowers at appropriate locations. 

In order to ensure focus on fire prevention and preparedness, a complete moratorium on lucrative civil works is absolutely essential since it eats into the precious resources and time of frontline staff. It is also the case that such largely unnecessary but ‘lucrative’ civil works and related activities reach a crescendo during the fire season since it is co-terminus with the financial year-end. Surely, no one would want the generous budget allocations to lapse?

Post-fire season audits must include a thorough analysis of accurate satellite data on forest fires in every range in order to fix accountability if negligence and lapses are established. Without accountability and deterrent action, our forests will continue to go up in smoke. Concerted efforts to prosecute identified offenders must be initiated after the fire season in order to establish deterrence.

Fighting forest fires is an extremely difficult job and requires years of learning and field exposure. The current, sordid system of transfers not based on proper analysis of officers’ skills and domain experience poses a huge challenge. 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 reserves, not only to prevent forest fires but also to ensure wildlife protection. 

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