With the advent of the dry season in India news reports about forest fires will be a common feature in the media. Forest fires are the scourge of forests and wildlife worldwide. Reports from the Ministry of Environment and Forests state that forest fires affect about 37 million hectares annually. A recent survey conducted by The Forest Survey of India found that fires affect around 55% of the forest area annually in our country. Incidences of forest fires, especially in southern India are recurrent for we mostly have deciduous forests.
ROOTS OF FOREST FIRES
Contrary to the popular belief that all forest fires are natural and occur due to lightning strikes, bamboo rubbing or burning coal scams, the source of the forest fires in India are almost entirely anthropogenic. The list of reasons for the fires in our forests lies within human activity, wittingly and unwittingly carried out.
At the height of the dry season, between February and May when the forests are drained of moisture and the deciduous forest floor is scattered with dry leaf litter, everything in the jungle is inflammable. Man’s desire for deliberately setting forests ablaze often stems from several domestic needs. The most common domestic need being local herders resorting to this measure to create new pastures for their cattle in the hope that fires would bring new shoots of grass for their livestock. Collectors of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) such as deer antlers set forests on fire so that it would aid their visibility in collecting the required produce which would otherwise be very difficult to spot in the dense undergrowth. Honey collectors in their urgency to smoke out bees from the hives, collectors of Dhoop (Viteria indica) are all sources of forest fires that are set either intentionally or negligently.
Poachers and timber smugglers, in their vindictive desire to settle scores with some rangers, guards or watchers are known to deliberately set forests on fires. At the end of the winter, the forest department carries out preventive fire control exercises like burning of fire lines. Often the negligent staff may not have put off the fire that would set off the entire forest on fire. Fires set to clear agricultural residues at the fringes of the forest could also spread into the forests due to negligence. Raging fires could be the result of smaller ones set to make roads, clear paths and even as frivolous as pyromaniacs who do it just for fun. Careless tourists and villagers are also known to have started devastating forest fires for just a spark from a beedi or a cigarette butt can ignite the dry leaf litter.
UPSHOT OF RAGING FIRES
Dr K Ullas Karanth, Director India Program of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), during his long-term studies in Nagarahole National Park and other reserves in Karnataka has observed several consequences of forest fires on wildlife and their habitat.
Fires have a devastating effect on the forests and turns huge areas into ashen deserts. Forest fires destroy valuable timber worth several crores annually, just one cubic feet of teak could fetch over Rs.1,400 in the market. The extent of loss of revenue is unimaginable, but more important is the irretrievable loss in the biological and ecological areas.
Crown fires, in which the entire tree burns, normally occur in the temperate forests but are uncommon to our subcontinent. The most common type of fires in India are the ground fires?which are an ecological disaster. Rapid ground fires partially burn trees and plants, mainly affecting undergrowth and leaf litter. Slow ground fires burn trees completely over a period of few days and also affect under-storey and litter.
Ground fires severely effect regeneration of plant and tree species, for seeds that would be collected on the forest floor get burnt out; young saplings die out choked by these fires which suck in all oxygen. Leaf litter that is collected over a period of time, which can run into several years enriches the forest soil. Setting it alight effects natural decomposition and soil fertility in the forest, rendering the area prone to soil erosion when the monsoon sets in.
Hundreds of species birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and other micro organisms are wiped out in the fires apart from the killing of the micro flora. Young ones and eggs of ground nesting birds like nightjars, larks, lapwings and so on are destroyed proving costly for posterity. The young ones of mammals, reptiles and other slow moving fauna are also consumed and have no escape route. Ground fires also burn down useful wild herbivore forage and replace edible species with inedible exotic invader species like Chromolaena weed. This can upset the natural composition of the whole forest itself. These telling facts are indicative of the havoc caused by ground fires.
According to Dr Karanth, “repeated forest fires will encourage fire hardy species and eliminate floral species that are highly susceptible to human induced fires. And over a period of time fire climax vegetation?will dominate the area”. Fire hardy species like Anogeisus latifolia (Dhaura), Cassia fistula (Indian Leburnum) will take over, affecting the diversity and floral composition of the area as seen in some parts of Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. Some weeds like Euputorium and Lantana have the capacity to regenerate better and flourish using the burnt plant material as fertilizing compost.
How do we then eliminate forest fires? Let us examine the choices before us. Firewatchers employed in our wildlife sanctuaries and national parks have an onerous responsibility. Sweltering heat, raging fires, inaccessible terrains are not easy to fight. Further, the human resources available with the forest department has not increased with increasing human pressures on the forest and its resources. In India, on an average, each forest guard has a patrol area of 20-30 sq kms and often on foot!
But, even in dry-deciduous natural forests, it has been possible to eliminate forest by effective prevention and vigilance. Even to this day the most effective prevention method of fighting fires is the elaborate network of fire lines and continuous vigil by the protection staff during the crucial fire season. Afterall Prevention is better than cure. Fire risk zones need to be prioritized and monitored. Watchtowers at crucial points which give good overview of large parts of the area, effective communication network, and mobility to reach affected areas swiftly are all important factors for effective fire protection. More funds, men and material have to be allocated to the forest department to check forest fires.
Imageries through IRS series of remote sensing satellites can be helpful in assessing the zones and extent of fires to prioritize risk areas. It is also very important that the preventive fire management, like burning of fire lines is taken up at the right time. Not too early when the moisture is high or not too late when the forest is too dry.
Dead and fallen timber and flowered bamboo were extracted from our reserves on the pretext that they were a fire risk. Recent efforts at Bhadra Tiger Reserve by Mr.Yatish Kumar, Deputy Director of the park and his dedicated staff proved that proficient vigil and effective prevention measures could prevent fires even in areas with high density of flowered bamboo. Forest department has reported very minimal fires in the whole of the reserve in the last three years.
Though the forest department is an important agency in checking and dowsing forest fires, non-governmental organizations can also play a pivotal role in campaigning against forest fires in and around the periphery of our protected areas. Voluntary organizations like Nagarahole Wildlife Conservation Education Project, Nature Conservation Guild and Wild Cat-C supported by WCS have been effectively working on the anti-fire campaigns around Nagarahole, Bramhagiri and Bhadra Sanctuaries in Karnataka. Involving local communities, students, and teachers residing around protected areas will instill a sense of belonging. This in turn helps mitigating the fire problem, though there will always be some criminal elements who will only fall in line when the stick is deployed.
Suppression of man-made forest fires, through direct measures as well as indirectly, through control of cattle grazing and MFP collection, will improve under-storey food availability for ungulates in turn maintaining the ecological balance of the forests. Many life-giving rivers originate from our forests and the process of absorption and gradual release of water is performed naturally by these green islands. Any tinkering would destroy the cistern of life to millions in our country.