Meena Janardhan | 14 May 2019
The recent years have seen an alarming increase in forest fires across India. According to the Real Time Forest Alert System of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), the number of forest fires shot up to 14,107 from 4,225 between November 2018 and February 2019.
The Forest Alert System is part of the Large Forest Fire Monitoring Programme that was launched by the FSI on January 16, 2019 using near real time data from the SNPP-VIIRS satellite.
Recent FSI data reveals that fire incidents during the summer went up by 49.3% in the last three years: from 24,817 incidents in 2016 to 35,888 in 2017 and 37,059 in 2018.
While, forest fires very often occur naturally in the dry summer months, before the rains arrive; the carnage recently in Bandipur shows they are becoming more and more unpredictable with each passing year. In the first three months of 2019, there have already been 2,500 forest fires alerts across the country. Causing rapid destruction and damage, forest fire incidents can quickly go out of control. In Bandipur, it is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 acres of forest land was reduced to ashes in just five days.
According to an Economic Times report, the forest fire that started at the national park, 220 km from Bengaluru, on February 21 was one of the worst the 87,400-hectare reserve has seen in recent years. It was finally put out on February 25, thanks to the efforts of over 500 firefighters, volunteers, forest officials and the Indian Air Force. By then, vast swathes of the park – home to a variety of flora and fauna – had been affected.
The FSI data reveals that, in 2019, large wildfires raged across several states. Between January 1, 2019, and February 26, 2019, 209 out of 558 forest fires occurred in the five southern states of India — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Kerala. That is 37% of the fires.
Yet, fire prevention seems to be low on the priority of the five states. This was revealed in an analysis of forest fire prevention funds published in Down To Earth’s State of the Environment Report, 2019. Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka – the three southern states which recorded a 217 to 401 per cent increase in incidences – spent only 60 per cent of the funds meant to contain fires.
But as a Times of India report points out, these fires are not restricted to national parks alone. An RTI query by a Mumbai-based environment group revealed that the urban forests in Mumbai and surrounding regions had 1,100 forest fires incidents in the last five years, which resulted in the loss of over 6,500 hectares of forest cover between 2014 and 2019.
Most state forest departments have protocols to tackle forest fires in place but with the increase in both numbers and intensity of these wildfires, they struggle to contain them. With 2019 set to be the hottest year in India since 1901, drier forest beds and scorching temperatures will only make this constant battle against forest fires tougher. Training and equipping ground-level forest officials is also crucial.
Causing forest fires is illegal under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. The India State of Forest Report, 2017 highlighted the reasons about why people set fire to forests. They include clearing areas for shifting cultivation, clearing forest floor for non-timber forest produce collection, and for hunting/poaching purposes.
Uncontrolled fires are a complex problem that require a comprehensive and long term policy. This requires more effective coordination with local communities. These fires should be treated as disasters so that disaster management authorities can play a major role in preventing them. The National Forest Commission of 2006 too suggested that all fires that burn an area larger than 20 square km, should be declared a state disaster. The new Real Time Forest Alert System of India, that lists potential fire spots across the country, must be taken seriously by the state forest departments.
The World Bank has pointed out that forest fires also pose a serious threat to India’s ability to expand its forest and tree cover by 2030. This could create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, in keeping with its Nationally Determined Contribution, which is at the heart of the Paris Climate Agreement and the achievement of its long-term goals.