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Monday, Sep 16, 2019

Forest blaze can be prevented with controlled fires: Scientists

Scientists and conservationists say the only way to prevent devastating fires is to restart controlled burning of dry and moist deciduous forests in the cold season.

india Updated: Mar 04, 2019 13:12 IST
Sibi Arasu
Sibi Arasu
Hindustan Times, Bengaluru
Rescue officials assist in extinguishing a forest fire at Bandipur Tiger Reserve, in Bandipur.
Rescue officials assist in extinguishing a forest fire at Bandipur Tiger Reserve, in Bandipur. (PTI)
         

Scientists and conservationists who have been studying forest fires in India say the only way to prevent devastating fires, like the one in Karnataka’s Bandipur last week, is to restart controlled burning of dry and moist deciduous forests in the cold season. This is not done in India currently, as all forest fires are deemed illegal.

“If you look at the history of when intense fires occur, they happen only when a particular set of climatic and environmental variables come together: low humidity, high temperature, high wind speed, and high fuel load (dead biomass). When these occur, the ignition source is almost irrelevant. So the most pragmatic way to reduce intense fires is through controlled burning,” says professor Raman Sukumar of Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science , Bengaluru.

Sukumar is best known for his work on Asian elephants but has also researched forest fires in Mudumalai national park, Tamil Nadu. The fire in the Bandipur forests, which is home to tigers, leopards, civets, sambar deer and four-horned antelopes, raged for at least five days from February 21 and was put out only after the Indian Air Force flew in helicopters to pour thousands of litres of water. By then, the fire had claimed 40 sq-km forest land.

Conservationists say it might take more than two decades for the flora in the region to completely recover. “In deciduous forests growth rate of trees is slow. So when a one or two meter tall tree burns, we assume the system is set back by 10 to 15 years. What we found though is that the root systems remain intact in moderate and low fires, and the trees ‘bounce back’ in one or two years,” says Sukumar.

A hurdle in the way of starting controlled fires is the popular perception against the practice. Ankila Hiremath, a plant ecologist at Bengaluru’s Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), says, “There should be a change in how fires are viewed... We need to understand that fires, whether natural or anthropogenic, have been part of the historical dynamic of dry forests and savannas... We need to distinguish between severe... fires and those that may have a positive ecological role to play.”

First Published: Mar 04, 2019 08:12 IST