Forest fires have become more frequent this year as compared to the past

Forest fires have become more frequent this year as compared to the past

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published Published on Apr 25, 2021   modified Modified on Apr 27, 2021


Forest fires are not just confined to countries like United States of America (California, 2020), Brazil (Amazon forest, 2019-2020) or Australia (2019-20); they happen every year across many states in India too. Media reports suggest that forest fires have taken place in the recent months in Odisha's Simlipal National Park, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, among other states. Forest fires have also been reported this year in Nagaland-Manipur border (Dzukou Valley), Madhya Pradesh's Bandhavgarh Forest Reserve and in sanctuaries for the Asiatic lion and the great Indian bustard in Gujarat.

In this context, it is worth exploring the website of Global Forest Watch (https://www.globalforestwatch.org), which is an open-source monitoring application that provides data on forest fires, forest cover loss/ gain, tree cover loss/ gain, deforestation, etc. using Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) alerts. The data is available at the global, national, and sub-national level (including states and districts).

In India, almost 14,429 VIIRS fire alerts were reported during 1st January-5th April, 2021 as against 6,223 VIIRS fire alerts reported during the same period last year, considering high confidence alerts only. The total number of VIIRS fire alerts (considering high confidence alerts only) this year so far is exceptionally high in comparison to the total for previous years since 2012, according to Global Forest Watch. It is worth noting that most fires were recorded in 2012 i.e. 20,315 VIIRS alerts. Please check the chart below.

 

 

Source: Global Forest Watch. “Fires in India”. Accessed on 24/04/2021 from www.globalforestwatch.org

Note: The fire alert count is also associated with a significance level. This significance level is determined by how the number of fire alerts over selected time interval varies from the expected value when considering the same period over all the available historic data.

Global Forest Watch defines the start of the peak fires season as the first week in which the mean alert counts crosses half of the historical datas mean-high alert counts.
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The peak forest fire season in India usually begins in early March and lasts around six weeks, according to Global Forest Watch. Between 13th April, 2020 and 5th April, 2021, around 24,061 VIIRS fire alerts were reported, considering high confidence alerts only. This number is exceptionally high in comparison to previous years going back to 2012, according to Global Forest Watch.  

Let us see the forest fire situation in Odisha, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, which happened this year.

Odisha

Wild fires inside Simlipal Biosphere Reserve hit the headlines recently. In Odisha, almost 1,018 VIIRS fire alerts were reported during 1st January-5th April, 2021 as against 90 VIIRS fire alerts reported during the same period last year, considering high confidence alerts only. The total number of VIIRS fire alerts (considering high confidence alerts only) this year so far is unusually high in comparison to the total for previous years since 2012, according to Global Forest Watch. Please note that most fires were recorded in 2017 i.e. 1,462 VIIRS alerts. Please consult the chart below.

 

 

Source: Global Forest Watch. “Fires in Odisha, India”. Accessed on 24/04/2021 from www.globalforestwatch.org

Note: Same as the previous chart.
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The peak forest fire season in Odisha usually begins in early March and lasts around six weeks, according to Global Forest Watch. Between 13th April, 2020 and 5th April, 2021, around 1,217 VIIRS fire alerts were reported in Odisha, considering high confidence alerts only. This number is high in comparison to previous years going back to 2012, according to Global Forest Watch.  

Uttarakhand

The districts of Uttarakhand, which are most vulnerable to forest fires, are: Pauri Garhwal, Tehri Garhwal, Dehradun, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Nainital and Almora. In Uttarakhand, almost 324 VIIRS fire alerts were reported during 1st January-5th April, 2021 as against 11 VIIRS fire alerts reported during the same period last year, considering high confidence alerts only. The total number of VIIRS fire alerts (considering high confidence alerts only) this year so far is unusually high in comparison to the total for previous years since 2012, according to Global Forest Watch. Most fires were observed in 2016 i.e. 587 VIIRS alerts. Kindly see the chart below.

 

Source: Global Forest Watch. “Fires in Uttarakhand, India”. Accessed on 24/04/2021 from www.globalforestwatch.org 

Note: Same as the previous chart.
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The peak forest fire season in Uttarakhand typically starts in late March and lasts around two weeks, according to Global Forest Watch. Between 13th April, 2020 and 5th April, 2021, almost 405 VIIRS fire alerts were reported in Uttarakhand, considering high confidence alerts only. This is normal compared to previous years going back to 2012, according to Global Forest Watch.  

Himachal Pradesh

In Himachal Pradesh, almost 79 VIIRS fire alerts were reported during 1st January-5th April, 2021 as against 2 VIIRS fire alerts reported during the same period last year, considering high confidence alerts only. The total number of VIIRS fire alerts (considering high confidence alerts only) this year so far is unusually high in comparison to the total for previous years going back to 2012, according to Global Forest Watch. Most fires were noticed in 2018 i.e. 257 VIIRS alerts. Kindly see the chart below.

 

Source: Global Forest Watch. “Fires in Himachal Pradesh, India”. Accessed on 24/04/2021 from www.globalforestwatch.org  

Note: Same as the previous chart.
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Between 13th April, 2020 and 5th April, 2021, nearly 138 VIIRS fire alerts were reported in Himachal Pradesh, considering high confidence alerts only. This is normal compared to previous years going back to 2012, according to Global Forest Watch.  

India State of Forest Report 2019

The total forest cover of the country is almost 7.12 lakh sq. km., which is roughly 21.67 percent of the entire geographical area. The tree cover of the country is estimated to be 95,027 sq. km., which is 2.89 percent of the entire geographical area. The India State of Forest Report 2019 Volume-I, released by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), Dehradun, mentions that biotic pressure, climate change and wild fires are considered to be important causes of loss of biodiversity. Although controlled fire has traditionally been used as a tool for forest management, uncontrolled fires of anthropogenic origin are a serious concern for sustainability of forests, and in order to prevent that mass awareness and participation of local people are required. The report cites a technical study, published in January 2019, which indicates that nearly 3.89 percent of the country’s total forest cover is 'extremely prone to fire', whereas 6.01 percent of total forest cover is found to be 'very highly fire prone'. While 11.5 percent of India’s total forest cover is 'highly prone to fire', nearly 14.7 percent of total forest cover is 'moderately fire prone'. Please note that the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer i.e. MODIS data for the study has been collected over a long period of time (i.e. 13 years -- from 2004 to 2017).

Table 1: Forest cover in different fire prone classes

Source: India State of Forest Report 2019, Volume-I, Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India, please click here to access
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So, almost 36.1 percent of India’s forest cover has been estimated to be prone to frequent forest fires. Please see table-1.

A high proportion of total forest cover in states like Assam (21.98 percent), Mizoram (29.91 percent) and Tripura (26.95 percent) is 'extremely fire prone', whereas a large proportion of total forest cover in states like Andhra Pradesh (13.04 percent), Manipur (33.13 percent), Meghalaya (18.38 percent), Mizoram (38.46 percent), Nagaland (18.48 percent) and Tripura (21.9 percent) is 'very highly fire prone'. Kindly see table-2.

Table 2: Forest cover of states and UTs under different fire prone classes (area in sq. km.)

Source: India State of Forest Report 2019, Volume-I, Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India, please click here to access
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Table-2 indicates that a large proportion of total forest cover in states like Andhra Pradesh (15.27 percent), Assam (14.48 percent), Bihar (17.68 percent), Chhattisgarh (13.55 percent), Madhya Pradesh (11.87 percent), Maharashtra (15.60 percent), Manipur (35.85 percent), Meghalaya (20.13 percent), Mizoram (24.64 percent), Nagaland (38.05 percent), Odisha (13.32 percent), Punjab (17.09 percent), Telangana (17.59 percent), Tripura (12.62 percent) and Uttar Pradesh (11.86 percent) is 'highly fire prone'. Please consult table-2.

Citing the above-stated study, the Annual Report 2020-21 of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) say that parts of Western Maharashtra, Southern part of Chhattisgarh, Central Part of Odisha and few parts of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka show patches of extremely and very highly fire prone zones.

In order to get more state and UT-level information on forest fires, please consult India State of Forest Report 2019 Volume-II.
 
Causes of wild fires

Aside from natural causes, human activities trigger major forest fires. Dry soil because of weak monsoon in Uttarakhand during two consecutive monsoon seasons (2019 and 2020) have caused frequent forest fires. Presence of large quantities of dry wood, logs, dead leaves, tree trunks, stumps, dry grass, weeds and other inflammable materials on ground during March-April increases the likelihood of forest fires in various parts of the country. Forest fires can occur under natural circumstances i.e. extreme heat and dryness and friction created by rubbing of branches against each other, among others. Human errors like spark from a cigarette butt, or a carelessly discarded lit matchstick in forest areas can also trigger major fires. Setting fire to dry leaves and branches in forests can cause major, uncontrollable blaze. Poachers and hunters use fire to divert wild animals. However, they do not douse the fire after hunting. Climate change too is responsible for forest fires of longer duration, rising intensity, higher frequency and extremely inflammable nature.

According to a Lok Sabha Secretariat document, the natural causes of wild fires are: lightning, friction of rolling stone, rubbing of dry bamboo clumps and volcanic explosion. The deliberate, anthropogenic causes of forest fires are: shifting cultivation, to flush the growth of tendu leaves, to have good growth of grass and fodder, to settle score with forest department or personal rivalry, to clear path by villagers, to encroach upon forest land, for concealing illicit felling of trees, and tribal traditions/ customs. The accidental, anthropogenic causes of forest fires are: collection of non-timber forest produce, burning farm residues, driving away wild animals, throwing burning beedi/ cigarettes, camp fires by picnickers, sparks from vehicle exhaust, sparks from transformers, uncontrolled prescribed burning, resin tapping, making charcoal in forests, extracting wine in forests, sparks from cooking near the forest and heating coal tar for road construction in forest.

It is difficult to control forest fires on account of various factors, including shortage of staff during peak season, location of the forest and accessing it (i.e. to go deep inside the wild forest with manpower, equipment and heavy vehicles loaded with water). Forest fires become difficult to control on account of dryness in the atmosphere, high temperatures and wind velocity. Existing trends suggest that forest fires generally spread in the direction of the winds and towards higher elevations.

Forest fires not only destroy wildlife habitats and biodiversity, they also adversely impact livelihoods of people who are dependent on forests for fuelwood, food (like tubers, honey, etc.), plants with medicinal properties, bamboo, fodder, and small timber, among others. Besides soil quality, soil moisture and fertility is harmed by forest fires.  

According to the Lok Sabha Secretariat's reference note on forest fires in the country, the ecological, economic and social impacts of wild fires are: loss of timber, loss of biodiversity, loss of the wildlife habitat, global warming, soil erosion and depletion of soil quality, loss of fuel wood and fodder, damage to water and the other natural resources, loss of natural regeneration, loss of non-timber forest products, ozone layer depletion, change in microclimate leading to health problems, other health problems due to smoke, soil erosion and floods, loss of livelihood for the people living in or near the forest, etc.

Near real time monitoring of forest fires by Forest Survey of India (FSI)

The latest annual report of the MoEFCC says that the FSI has been alerting State Forest Departments of forest fire locations detected by the MODIS sensor on-board Aqua and Terra Satellites of NASA since 2004. Since then, there has been continuous upgradation in the forest fire alert systems.

The MoEFCC's annual report mentions that the FSI Forest Fire Alerts System (FAST) has undergone periodic changes to facilitate not only foresters but also common people in a better way. The fully automated FSI forest fire alerts system version 2.0 with near real time SNPP-VIIRS data was made operational in 2017. A new faster, quicker and more robust version of FSI Forest Fire Alerts System (Version 3.0) was launched in 2019 by adding several new features to the earlier Version 2.0. A major improvement over the previous version is the addition of large forest fire monitoring which identifies and tracks large fires in an automated manner.

From the latest annual report of MoEFCC we come to know that the FSI launched the Large Forest Fire Monitoring Programme using near real time SNPP-VIIRS data as a part of the FAST version 3.0. With the launch of Large Forest Fire Monitoring System, FSI aims to track large fire events across the country and disseminate specific Large Fire alerts with the objective to identify, track and report serious forest fire incidents so as to help monitor such fires at senior level in the State Forest Department and also seek timely additional assistance that may be required to contain such fires. The FSI forest fire alert system is being used by more than 1.08 lakh registered users across the country.

The FSI with years of experience and repository of fire related data, developed in 2016, an indigenous “Early Warning Alert System for Forest Fire”. The objective was to identify areas which are more vulnerable to severe forest fires. The alerts to State Forest Departments are based on parameters like forest cover, forest type, climatic variables (temperature and rainfall) and recent fire incidents over the area.

 

References

Global Forest Watch, https://www.globalforestwatch.org (accessed on 20-24 April, 2021)

Annual Report 2020-21, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, please click here to access

India State of Forest Report 2019, Volume-I, Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India, please click here to access

Identification of Fire Prone Forest Areas Based on GIS Analysis of Archived Forest Fire Points Detected in the Last Thirteen Years -Satyendra Kumar, Abhishek Chaudhary, Tapas Biswas and Dr. Sourav Ghosh, prepared under the guidance of Dr. Subhash Ashutosh, Technical Information Series, Volume-I, No.1, 2019, Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, please click here to access

India State of Forest Report 2019, Volume-II, Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India, please click here to access

Reference Note: Forest Fire in India, No.28/RN/Ref./July/2018, Lok Sabha Secretariat, please click here to access

Forest fires in India: Alerts since April 1 nearly double that of 2020 -Dakshiani Palicha, Down to Earth, 19 April, 2021, please click here to access

Explained: Why is this season’s forest fires in Uttarakhand worrisome? -Lalmani Verma, The Indian Express, 7 April, 2021, please click here to access

Himachal Pradesh Gears Up After Forest Fires In Uttarakhand -Ashwani Sharma, Outlook India, 6 April, 2021, please click here to access

45 forest fires in 24 hrs, Uttarakhand reaches out to Centre -Lalmani Verma, The Indian Express, 5 April, 2021, please click here to access

Explained: Why forest fires break out in the spring, and why they have been so frequent this year -Anjali Marar, The Indian Express, 5 April, 2021, please click here to access

Explained: The Simlipal forest fire, and why it is a matter of concern -Aishwarya Mohanty, The Indian Express, 4 March, 2021, please click here to access 

Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires? -Kendra Pierre-Louis and John Schwartz, The New York Times, 3 December, 2020, please click here to access

Amazon fires: Are they worse this year than before? -Jack Goodman and Christopher Giles, BBC, 29 August, 2020, please click here to read more

4 Things to Know About Australia’s Wildfires and Their Impacts on Forests -Thailynn Munroe and Rod Taylor, 10 January, 2020, World Resources Institute, please click here to read more



Image Courtesy: Inclusive Media for Change/ Shambhu Ghatak

 



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