Satellite image of NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System of forest fires.(Courtesy- NASA)
Satellite image of NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System of forest fires.(Courtesy- NASA)

Early summer, lack of rain spark fires

  • According to Forest Survey of India’s forest fire alert system, there were 2,317 fire points last year between February 26 and March 7, but the figure rose to 53,211 this time after data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (SNPP) was taken into account.
By Jayashree Nandi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 08, 2021 12:10 AM IST

Forest fires are raging in many parts of the country as the mercury spikes and there is a large rain deficiency except in parts of peninsular India, leading to an earlier than usual onset of the fire season, senior officials of the Forest Survey of India said on Saturday.

According to Forest Survey of India’s forest fire alert system, there were 2,317 fire points last year between February 26 and March 7, but the figure rose to 53,211 this time after data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (SNPP) was taken into account.

When data from the MODIS satellite is considered, there were 627 fire points last year during the same period while there are 6295 fire points this year. In the past seven days, Odisha alone recorded nearly 18,000 fire points as per SNPP followed by around 5000 fires in Telangana; around 4,500 fires in Jharkhand and 4300 in Madhya Pradesh.

“We depend on two satellites for fire data. SNPP collects forest fires at 375 metres resolution so even small fires are picked up. There could be many factors contributing to increased forest fires — one of them is fuel load. Whether forests have been cleared of dry twigs, branches, etc will have to be seen. Other important factors are soil moisture and heat, which help fires ignite quickly. In 2013, we did an assessment of the worst fire periods. It’s normally May which is also the hottest month in many states. But this year we may see a spike in April, also depending on temperatures,” said Sunil Chandra, deputy director, forest geoinformatics division.

“The reasons for forest fires can be different in different states. Local factors are also important. This year and last year there has been a very high number of forest fires in Uttarakhand, also starting in October and November and resuming again from February. Not only fuel load, the topography in Uttarakhand also makes it prone to spread of fires,” added Chandra. The FSI’s data shows forest fires started spiking from January this year peaking dramatically in March.

According to a statement by India Meteorological Department on Friday, maximum temperatures are between 37 to 39 degree C over most places in West, Central, East and Southern Peninsula. The highest maximum temperature of 40.4 degree C was recorded at Bhubaneshwar in Odisha on Saturday. On Friday the highest maximum temperature was recorded at Bhuj-Rudramata (Saurashtra & Kutch) at 40 degrees C. The highest maximum temperatures were recorded at Brahmapuri (Vidarbha) at 39.8 degrees C, followed by Kothagudem (Telangana) at 39.5 degrees C and Chandrapur (Vidarbha) at 39.2 degrees C on Thursday.

The IMD’s climate summary for February showed rainfall over the country as a whole for the month was 7.6mm, 68% less than its Long Period Average (LPA) of 23.5mm making it the sixth lowest since 1901. In February, Odisha recorded 83% rain deficiency, Uttarakhand 71%, West Madhya Pradesh 68%, and Telangana 74%, among others. There was 72% rain deficiency in the country between March 1 and 6.

“Generally, when there is a dry period for a long time and temperatures are high, forest fires increase. They can, however, be triggered by human activity also. We are expecting some rain in the extreme northern parts of the country in the next few days and in some parts down south due to easterly activity. There is also a possibility of rain in the north-eastern states as we enter the pre-monsoon season. But I don’t see a possibility of rain in Odisha or other central parts unless a low-pressure area or other weather systems develop,” said DS Pai, climate scientist at IMD Pune.

Indian summer or what the India Meteorological Department calls “pre-monsoon season” in March-April-May has seen a very clear shift in its intensity since 1998. Long-term data from 1971 onwards suggests a shift to considerably warmer than normal summers since 1998 and more than doubling of deadly heatwave events as per the IMD’s assessment.

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