Half of India’s rich forest cover, spread over seven lakh square km, is prone to fires and Uttarakhand is no exception. However, the burning hills have once again exposed the country’s ill-preparedness to deal with this man-made disaster.
Officially, India has a forest fire disaster management plan.
There is a satellite-based forest fire alert system anchored at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, called the Indian Forest-Fire Response and Assessment System. The system, imported from the United States and launched in 2005, now covers most fire-prone areas. It sends an advance warning to foresters on the possibility of fire arising at intense heat zones created in forests due to the hot weather and highly inflammable tree residue. However, despite all the help it provides to the country’s short-staffed and ill-trained fire departments, the system is not equipped to detect human intervention.
“It (the satellite-based system) works well in United States and Australia as the people there don’t cause many forest fires. Here in India, people are responsible for most of them,” said a senior official of the Forest Survey of India, which is mandated to monitor forest fires in the country.
Humans are responsible for around 90% of the fires in India and, in most cases, the reason is their belief that forests and grasslands re-generate themselves after the rains — providing enough fodder for cattle and wood for cooking. That is a myth.
The fact is that forests regenerate (and the loss to the flora and fauna is limited) only when a fire is set in controlled conditions. It happens in areas where a 1923 rule of creating forest fire lines — with land being dug around the periphery of the forest to prevent its spread — and clearing inflammable material is still implemented.
During the British period, the spread of fire was prevented through the removal of dry vegetation along forest boundaries. Called the fire line, it was used to ensure that a blaze doesn’t advance from one forest compartment to another. As fire generally spreads only if there is a continuous supply of fuel (dry vegetation) along its path, the best way to control it is by creating firebreaks in the shape of small ditches in the forests, says a Himachal Forest Department manual.
Savita, the first woman director of the Forest Research Institute, says removing inflammable materials such as pine needles, dry leaves and twigs is essential for ensuring that fire does not spread.
However, this British-era rule remains on paper in Uttarakhand and many parts of Himachal Pradesh. The forest departments of these states lack funds to dig such lines on an annual basis, and hardly ever implement the protocols that stipulate the clear demarcation of fire-prone areas.
The Uttarakhand government has not resumed the rule, suspended in the 1970s by the then Uttar Pradesh government, due to financial concerns. Himachal Pradesh, on the other hand, provides minimal funds for digging lines — a project that requires manual work for at least a couple of months during peak winter.
Savita says this year was ripe for forest fires because dry winters and the early onset of a hot summer had created the perfect conditions for quick inflammation. This was accentuated by local residents who have been suffering due to back-to-back drought in the hill states.
The Forest Survey of India (FSI) describes around 50% of its wooded areas as fire-prone, and around 63 million hectares as “high intensity”.
“Fire is a major cause of degradation of Indian forests,” says a study done by the FSI in 2012, adding that the country has “weak” data on forest fires and management. The FSI analysis also says that 90% of forest fires are created by humans, affecting around 6.77 lakh hectares of forest land every decade.
A study on the impact of forest fires on health says burning of vegetation emits not only carbon dioxide but also a host of other gases — including carbon monoxide, methane and oxides of nitrogen — that can trigger asthma attacks. “A fully gutted forest may take several years to revive,” said P K Sen, former Indian Forest Service Office who received the Padma award a few years ago for his contribution to forest management.
All this goes to show that India has not learnt much from its worst brush with forest fires in 1995, when over 10,000 hectares of Himachal Pradesh’s lush green cover was gutted. And it’s probably not going to learn a lot from the Uttarakhand inferno either.