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The damaging trail of forest fires
Sometimes light fire is described as beneficial for germination of dormant seeds in the forests, but by and large fire restricts the regeneration capacity of the forests and is one of the main reasons for the loss of biodiversity. Fire inflicts bigger damage in wildlife areas. Even ground fire can damage young seedlings, rodents, reptiles, eggs etc. Upper soil flora and fauna and microbial rich humus are also destroyed. Consequently, the equilibrium in nature is disturbed. Soil moisture and the rich nutrients are lost.
The composition of species in the burnt area drastically changes as invasive plants like lantana infest the area. Most forest fires are found to be man-made and there are hardly any cases of accidental fire due to reasons such as lightning, electric spark or rubbing of stones. Further, forests are burnt for encroachments and claiming titles under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. Reports from the ground suggest that nearly 200 hectares of forest area in Shivamogga district was burnt from August to October 2016 for claiming titles under FRA.
Burning forest areas can also lead to water depletion. For example, the shola forests of Western Ghats are sources of water and numerous perennial streams. Shola shares its ecology with grasslands and communities residing in the area sometimes burn the grasslands. Due to this, the ecosystem’s capacity to hold water reduces.
As a result, sholas shrink and the grasslands dry up. This results in the depleting flow of water, which can adversely impact irrigation, power and drinking water supply.
Large quantities of CO2 and greenhouse gases are released instantaneously into the atmosphere as a result of forest fire. Globally, forest fire is a factor contributing to global warming. Fires have been observed with larger frequency in tropical forests.
In future, climate mediated incidence of forest fire are likely to increase. Uncontrolled fires have negative impact on the health of forests and increase their vulnerability to pest outbreaks and other stresses. Forest Departments across the states make serious efforts in taking up prevention and extinguishing fire.
Fire in protected areas comes in public glare quickly and draws the attention of the media and forest officers are held accountable for it. In the recent fire outbreak in Bandipur National Park, it was found that a group of forest personnel were caught in the smoke of fire inside lantana bushes and struggled to come out of it. This has led to death of one person and injuries to three others. There has been a very thick growth of lantana in dry deciduous forests, where movement of staff is very difficult and extinguishing fire is further difficult.
Further, in Protected Areas there are a lot of inflammable materials such as dead and fallen trees, and dry standing trees. Such areas may be surveyed and the inflammable materials has to be removed as fire protection measures in a phased and low impact manner. If the fire has run through several ranges in a division, officers concerned will have to be held accountable. Their pre-fire season preparation of cutting and burning the fire lines should have been done properly.
Some fire lines are cut and burnt annually in every forest in this country. The purpose is to divide the forests in fire blocks, so that when there is fire in one block, it does not cross over to the adjoining block. It can be understood that the crown fire can spread over the adjoining block jumping the fire line, but in how many instances will it happen? In majority of the cases, the fire line would be effective and would check the spread of fire. The main reason why all fire lines are not being cleared and burnt is the spread of thick growth of lantana. If these lines are not cleared in every three to four years, the per hectare rate becomes unworkable and no contractor comes forward to do the work. It is necessary to provide the workable rates to make all old fire lines effective.
It must be borne in mind that if a forest area is protected from fire for a few years, it becomes more vulnerable for bigger fire. Then the volume of debris and other inflammable materials increases and the flames go through dead standing trees and flowered bamboo clumps, it becomes a crown fire. Forest personnel may have to battle for several days to control fire in such cases. Fire protection measures in all vulnerable cases may be planned in different ways. Wider fire lines may be cut and burnt for effectively checking the spread of fire.
Furthermore, the forest staff have traditionally been beating fire with brooms made of green twigs available on the spot. Modern equipment is recommended for beating the fire, but it becomes cumbersome to carry them to interior places affected by fire. There is a tendency on the part of the staff to leave the equipment behind when they move in difficult terrain on foot. However, it is important for the staff to carry equipment such as protective head gear, goggles and fireproof chest. To check the spread of fire, counter fires are also put at suitable locations by looking into the direction and velocity of the wind. This can be effective when the fire is advancing in one direction.
Communication is key
Usually, firefighting staff are drafted in big number ranging from 20 to 100 depending upon the extent of fire. Communication among the staff needs to be improved for a more efficient management. For example, the recent fire outbreak in Bandipur, the people stuck in the fire could not communicate with others for quite some time.
Senior officers should also be available on fire fighting spot for the entire duration to guide and supervise the operation. Fitness of the staff should be regularly checked. Firefighting drills should also be carried out routinely.
Fire protection in forests is a very big challenge and is definitely a very difficult task. I am certain that the officers can overcome the challenge, if they are given free hand to administer and manage forests.
(The author is retired principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)