In just five days of April, Uttarakhand has recorded 361 incidents of forest fire that have damaged 567 hectares, including 380 hectares of reserve forest areas. As forest fires rage in different parts of state, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat sought help from Union Home Minister Amit Shah following which the Centre has provided two MI-17 helicopters for fire-fighting — one each deployed in Kumaon and Garhwal regions. Since 2010, 14 human deaths have occurred in forest fires in the state.
Among the four who died this year, two were forest personnel. Seven districts in the state — Pauri Garhwal, Tehri Garhwal, Dehradun, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Nainital and Almora — are most vulnerable to forest fires. Over 12,000 forest personnel have been deployed in fire-fighting operations across the state.
Uttarakhand has around 38,000 square km of forests, which is almost 71 per cent of its geographical area. Since its formation as a separate state in the year 2000, forest fires have affected over 48,000 hectares.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
Why is the current situation worrisome?
Every year forest fires begin in Uttarakhand in mid-February, which is the onset of spring when the trees shed dry leaves and the soil loses moisture due to a rise in temperature. This ‘forest fire season’ continues usually till mid-June in the summer. In hilly areas, the surface gets drier faster than plains due to lower accumulation of rainwater.
According to experts, three factors cause spread of forest fire — fuel load, oxygen and temperature. Dry leaves are fuel for forest fires and its quantity this time is more than past years.
According to an official, due to lockdown there was very less human movement and field activity in the forest fire season like every year when inflammable leaves and woods are collected in forest areas near human habitats. Dry leaves shed from trees in spring remained at the ground and the fuel load increased due to the same natural phenomenon in the year.
Following less rain in monsoon and almost nil rain in winters dried the soil and earth surface lost the moisture early this time. Atmospheric temperature in March and April is also soaring in comparison to previous year. Strong wind velocity is spreading fire very fast in jungles. Among these factors, the forest department can control only fuel load by controlled burning.
Officials admit that the situation is alarming because the peak time for forest fire — the third week of May when temperature is highest – is yet to come.
This year, however, forest fires have started from April first week. More than 1100 incidents of forest fire have so far occurred in the current fire season, which started in October, 2020. with almost 50 per cent in March and April first week only.
What had happened in 2016?
Uttarakhand had witnessed its worst wildfire in 2016 when over 4433 hectares was gutted in 2074 incidents of forest fires. Six people had died while four had sustained severe injuries. At the time, forest fires had remained unnoticed for several days following a political crisis in the state that had led to the imposition of the President’s rule. According to an official, forest fires were reported from 1200 places on a single day, April 26, that year. In the emergency situation that had ensued, the option of cloud seeding was unsuccessfully explored/ Then, helicopters were used for the first in the state to douse fire. While the temperature was very high at that time, the fuel load was very less and wind velocity was weak.
Considering these last two factors, experts say 2021 may witness wildfire worse than 2016 and natural rain is the last hope.
What causes forest fires?
The forest department cites four causes of wildfires in the state– deliberate fires by locals, carelessness, farming-related activities and natural reasons. According to a government report, locals set forests on fire for growth of good quality grass, to cover up illegal cutting of trees, for poaching and sometimes to even take revenge from somebody including government employees. Friction of electricity cables with dry leaves and woods and lightning too trigger wildfires, according to the report. Setting forest on fire is a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code. A forest official said that several cases have been lodged but the accused remain unidentified in most of such cases.
What are the preventive measures?
Padma Bhushan awardee and Dehradun-based environmentalist, Anil Prakash Joshi said Van Panchayats should be given rights and incentives for protecting the forests. Joshi said provisions of the Forest Act of 1988 dissociates the local community with the forests and, in the absence of a sense of belonging, local community villagers do not initiate dousing fires on their own. Joshi said waterholes should be developed across the mountains to recharge groundwater and maintain moisture in the soil.
A forest official said awareness is the only solution and there shou;d be programmes to motivate local people to protect forests from fire because they act as first responder whereas the forest department has limited staff. The official added that reporting and fire management is better in reserve forest areas but facilities and manpower lack in civil areas.