Up in flames: Maharashtra's saga of forest fires
At 3pm on March 2, Santosh Jamghare, a supervisor on a commercial farm in rural Maharashtra’s Shilottar village, noticed licks of flame and billowing smoke, approaching from the teak and palash forests which line the farm’s northern perimeter.
Jamghare immediately alerted 38-year-old Adityavardhan Pathak, the farm-owner, who at the time was inspecting a crop of mangoes on the other end of the farm. Within minutes of receiving word, Pathak and three members of his staff bundled into a car and drove off to assess the blaze -- its size, intensity and speed.
“The fire was initially coming from one direction, but it quickly spread outward. The farm is surrounded by woods on three sides and the grass is very dry this time of year. Before we knew it, there were ground-level fires coming at us from every direction,” said Pramod Lakde, a farm supervisor, who was present that day.
On February 15, Pathak had shifted residence from his home in Mulund, Mumbai, to the 80-acre estate in Thane district, where he grows fruit (cashews, papaya, mango, jamun, amla), rice and some vegetables. The produce is sold to a mix of caterers, food processing units, wholesalers and also directly to villagers in Shilottar.
The farm was bought by his doctor parents back in 2002, and Pathak -- a former army captain in the Short Service Commission -- joined them in 2011. Pathak spends the majority of his summers on the property, arriving in February or March and staying till the monsoon arrives in June.
Each year, usually between February and May, a couple of fires break out in nearby farmlands, or in the forests surrounding his property. “I have to be present if they suddenly go rogue,” Pathak said. The closest fire station is at least 30km away, in the Murbad industrial area, which he said, was too far. This year, Pathak was yet to create fire-lines -- breaks in combustible vegetation which can prevent fires from spreading -- and clear the boundary of debris like twigs, leaves and straw.
So on March 2, as soon as the flames began licking the edges of his farm, he and his staff got to work: first, they identified areas where the fire might breach the boundary. Over the following five hours, about 18 to 20 agricultural workers, along with three to five supervisors, did the gruelling task of clearing vegetation from the perimeter, keeping track of the fire’s movements, and doused the licking flames and embers before they spread.
“There were four to five teams assigned to different parts of the farm, and they would keep switching locations depending on where the fire was spreading. We usually bring in an earth moving machine to clear the debris, so our challenge was doing it manually, and quickly,” explained Pramod.
Since water, a scarce commodity in the region, is required in prohibitively large quantities when dealing with fire, jute bags and palm fronds were brought out of storage to beat back the flames. Swabs of wet cloth were distributed to those venturing too close to the fire. “To cover our mouths. Otherwise, you might breathe in the smoke and start suffocating,” said Pramod. Another agricultural worker, Manda Lakde, was assigned the job of ensuring a steady supply of drinking water as firefighting leaves one parched.
Despite this, the blaze eventually found its way into Pathak’s six-acre cashew orchard, destroying his crop and some irrigation equipment. “The trees themselves are alright, fortunately. Only one season’s yield has been lost. We’re trying to salvage some of it by making olya kajuchi sabzi, a Maharashtrian delicacy which uses raw cashew-nut,” says Pathak’s wife, Sujata.
“These fires happen once or twice a year, but they are usually smaller than what we just saw. The hair on your arms gets singed if you stand even a few metres away. It is scary, but if something were to happen to the farm, where will I come back and work tomorrow?” said Lakde, a daily-wage earner.
Signs of an uptick
Signs of fire are, in fact, conspicuous along the Murbad-Kalyan highway as one drives toward Shilottar in Thane’s Shahapur taluka. One sees not only the remnants of controlled, square-shaped fires lit in recently harvested paddy fields, but also entire hillsides that have been scorched, trees and all.
Data from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) shows a steep increase in fire counts in Thane this year. The district witnessed 2,477 forest fires between January 1 and March 28 this year, a 257% increase from the same period last year, when just 694 fire counts were observed.
At a more granular level, data obtained from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) fire alert system shows that within Thane district, the highest number of fire counts is observed in the Murbad, Dhasai, Dolkhamb, Kalyan and Shahapur forest ranges, which are in close proximity to Shilottar where Pathak’s farm is located. These ranges together make up just under half of all fire counts in Thane district since November 2018 as per FSI data.
Several theories have been posited for why such fires break out: one, electrical infrastructure like distribution lines and transformers passing through wooded areas, which create sparks when they malfunction, or make contact with vegetation; another, the hunting practices of the resident adivasi and forest-dwelling populations. “The tribals set small fires to drive out pigs and rabbits. Sometimes it can cause trouble,” said Nandu, a small farmer from the nearby town of Vasind, about 19km away.
Then there’s also the issue of climate change. Rising temperatures and increasingly erratic monsoon have led to a “drying” or “browning” of vegetation in parts of Maharashtra, creating conditions in which fires can spread easily, said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune.
“Most fires may be set by humans, but their frequency and impact can be exacerbated by climactic conditions. Across Maharashtra, we have seen two major factors -- erratic monsoon and a rise in temperature over the last five decades or so -- which would be making the environment conducive to fire. This is perhaps why you are seeing an increase in fire counts at the district level, in places like Thane and Raigad. The link between these fires and changing climactic conditions needs further study,” said Koll.
Madhav Gadgil, eminent ecologist and founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, noted that all these were plausible culprits. “But speaking from my own experience in Maharashtra’s fire-prone districts, human interventions are almost always directly associated. They are overwhelmingly more responsible for forest fires than say, increasing temperatures or drought, though of course those are factors too,” Gadgil said.
A 2019 study by the Forest Survey of India, identifying fire prone forest areas in the country, states: “Some forest fires start from natural causes like lightning, rolling stones, friction of dry bamboos and stems of trees. Moreover, high atmospheric temperatures and dryness (low humidity) offer favourable circumstance for a fire to commence. In India, however, over 95 % of fire incidences are of anthropogenic origin.”
Thane district, though, is not considered a problem area by the forest department. Multiple officials in the department, including Sanjeev Gaur, additional principal chief conservator of forests (protection), said that mitigation efforts are largely concentrated in the drier, water-scarce, and more densely forested region of Vidarbha.
“In Vidarbha, as compared to Western or Madhya Maharashtra, the fires are not only more in number but also more intense. The risk to biodiversity is also more than in, say, Thane or Raigad,” said Gaur, citing the example of Gadricholi -- a densely forested district bordering Chhattisgarh in central India, which accounted for 1.78% of India’s forest fires between 2003 and 2016, according to a 2018 joint report of the Ministry of environment, forest and climate change and the World Bank. This made it the only district in Maharashtra to be ranked in the nation’s top 20 fire prone districts.
In Vidarbha, officials said, controlled fires are also lit by forest-dwelling communities when foraging for tendu leaves used in beedi making, which may inadvertently spread over larger portions of the forest.
Even so, data shows a consistent downward trend in fire counts in these regions. Satellite data shows a clear reduction in fire counts across Vidarbha in the last four years. Gadchiroli’s fire counts in 2020, for example, were a third of what they were in 2016 (4,332 fire counts, down from 12,425). Similar trends can be observed in nearby Amravati, Chandrapur, Yavatmal and Gondiya districts, where the state’s fire management efforts have been redoubled in the last half-decade or so.
“Gadchiroli has been a challenge, but through effective interventions and implementation of dedicated fire management plans, there have been improvements. Nearby districts like Amravati and Chandrapur are also prone to fires,” said Gaur who oversees the fire management plans in each of the state’s 36 districts.
The main tool of the forest department is to create fire-breaks, or fire-lines. These are essentially three to six metre-wide gaps in vegetation that we create in the most high-risk areas of the forests, based on past experiences. This is done by physically removing the vegetation or setting controlled fires to it.
“Work on this starts every year in December and January. Since most fires we encounter are ground fires, a well-placed network of fire-lines does the job effectively,” he said.
In addition to pre-emptive measures, though, officials also said that increased monitoring and integration with NASA-FIRMS and the FSI’s forest fire alert system have also played a role in reducing the impact of forest fires. A case study is that of Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati district, which has a dedicated fire cell constituted last year, comprising a district forest officer (DFO), a range forest officer (RFO) and 10 forest guards.
As per a technical document shared by the Melghat Tiger Reserve fire cell, all assigned forest guards are registered with NASA FIRMS and FSI, and receive SMS alerts in real time when a forest fire is detected by satellite. When the guard receives the alert, he creates a ‘forest map’ using an open-source, GIS software, showing the exact location of the fire in relation to the forest’s administrative boundaries, the document explains.
The map is then shared with field staff through WhatsApp. During fire season, every range officer in Melghat is assigned an eight-member fire-squad, along with at least one vehicle and a number of fire-blowers. As soon as the range office receives the alert, a squad sets off to track down and douse the fire using directions provided by the guards. “Similar operations will be implemented in other districts as well,” said Gaur.
In five years, the number of annual fire counts in Melghat Tiger Reserve reduced from 11,401 (in 2016) to just 1,015 (in 2020), as per data provided by the Melghat Fire Cell. Year on year, the area of forest affected by fires in Melghat also declined, from 379 sq kms in 2016 to 128 sq kms in 2020. Department officials attributed this to pre-emptive steps (like timely creation of fire lines), but also the fire cell’s enhanced capacity to respond to incidents in real time.
Madhav Gadgil, on the other hand, strongly emphasized that these trends are more attributable to community participation from gram sabhas in Vidarbha, where a substantial number of community forest rights claims have been recognised, largely under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act over the last five or six years.
“It can be confidently said that the indigenous population is now encouraged to protect their own resources. I have seen first-hand how forest dwelling communities have been reluctant to actually put out fires, due to conflicts with the forest departments. Now that their claims over the forest have been recognised they are able to finally protect their own resources after years of being harassed by the state machinery,” said Gadgil.
Even as the state has been able to control outbreaks in Vidarbha, emerging hotspots for fire counts are a cause for concern. Data shows that in the past eight years (2013-2020), Thane comes third among Maharashtra’s 35 districts (based on 2011 census) by average share of fires --- after Gadchiroli. Other districts where forest fire counts are significant include Raigad, Satara and Pune, which are all outside Vidarbha.
Raigarh and Thane account for 8.4 and 7.2% of all fire counts in the state over the past eight years, while Pune and Ratnagiri, also western districts which have not been historically fire-prone, came in at fourth and fifth place, contributing 6.2 and 6.1% of fire counts between 2013 and 2020.
Nizamuddin Jalal, an activist who has been tracking stray fires in Raigad’s Mahad taluka, said, “In front of my home, there is a hillside which has been burnt before my own eyes. There is a new fire that is reported to me every day.”
Responding to these concerns, Gaur said that it is still a “long way away” before the fire department can exercise complete control over emerging forest fire hotspots. “The Western Ghats and Konkan areas are just as important for biodiversity as Vidarbha’s forests. We already have district-level plans in place for these areas, and will tweak them based on our experiences in eastern Maharashtra. Our achievements in Melghat will surely be replicated elsewhere.”
January to March is also the time when farmers in Maharashtra prepare their fields for the upcoming kharif season, using controlled burning to clear land of crop stubble. “Many times, these fires go out of control, or embers may travel some distance and create a spot fire somewhere else. These are not intentional but can still cause damage,” said Gaur.
“During this season, the weather gets hotter, leaf matter dries up and falls to the ground, and hot winds start blowing. These are the catalytic factors,” he said.
In 2011, a few years after Pathak began farming commercially (and when he wasn’t well prepared to manage this sort of disaster), a particularly intense blaze had laid waste to more than 50 acres of his farm, resulting in financial losses that he pegs to be in the lower eight figures. He not only lost produce but also expensive equipment like solar panels, irrigation pipes, and an aquaculture pond that remains defunct. The fire also diminished crop yield for the following three years at least, he said.
“We have a proper fire management plan in place now, but the worrying thing is that there seem to be a lot more fires in the area this year,” he said.