Forest fires at highest recorded levels in India - GulfToday

Forest fires at highest recorded levels in India

Meena Janardhan

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

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The occurrence of intense forest fires has risen ten-fold in India in the past two decades.

India reported 345,989 forest fires from November 2020 to June 2021, according to the State of Forests Report, 2021 (SoFR, 2021), released on 13 January 2022. This is the highest recorded in the country for this period so far.

A recent study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) has found that India’s forests are a major casualty. This is a worrying indication of climate change — the occurrence of intense forest fires has risen ten-fold in India in the past two decades.

The study found 36% of India’s forest cover falls in zones that are vulnerable to intense forest fires. The frequency and intensity of these forest fires — measured by the number of incidents and total area burned, among other criteria — has steadily increased between 2000 and 2019, according to the study. More than 30 per cent Indian districts are vulnerable to extreme forest fires.

The study states that while there were 3,082 forest fires across states in 2000, the number went up to almost 30,947 in 2019. Forest fires also led to a deterioration in air quality.

Districts in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Telangana, and nearly every state in the Northeast (with the exception of Sikkim) are among the worst affected, it found.

The CEEW study also found that over the last two decades, more than 89 per cent of total forest fire incidences have been recorded in districts that are traditionally drought-prone or have been witnessing weather swapping trend i.e. flood-prone areas turning drought-prone and vice-versa. Kandhamal (Odisha), Sheopur (Madhya Pradesh), Udham Singh Nagar (Uttarakhand), and East Godavari (Andhra Pradesh) are some of the forest fire hotspot districts that are also showing a swapping trend from flood to drought.

At least 258,480 forest fires were reported during the same time in 2018-19, and were the second-highest so far, according to data presented by Ashwini Kumar Choubey, minister of state in the Union environment ministry, in the Rajya Sabha on 16 December 2021.This is 2.7 times more than the fires reported between November 2019 and June 2020. This includes large, continuous and repeated forest fires

The country has seen this increase after a decrease in forest fire counts in the last two most recent forest seasons — November 2018-June 2019 and November 2019-June 2020. Forest fires break out in India from November-May every year due to various natural and anthropogenic reasons including accumulation of inflammable materials such as dry leaves, twigs, pine needles, etc.

Odisha reported the maximum fires among all states (51,968), followed by Madhya Pradesh (47,795) and Chhattisgarh (38,106). Uttarakhand recorded the sixth-highest fire counts in the country; incidences were up 28.3 times this forest fire season compared to last.

This could be seen as another manifestation of climate change. SoFR, 2021 too acknowledged the link between climate change and forest fires, citing the global forest resources assessment 2020. The report has mapped climate change hotspots in Indian forests based on projections for 2030, 2050 and 2080 and alerted that the state will record the maximum increase in temperature and possibly a decrease in rainfall.

The CEEW study also found that local air quality could deteriorate significantly during a forest fire. The state governments or state forest departments should repurpose public buildings like government schools and community halls by fitting them with clean air solutions — like air filters — to create clean air shelters for communities worst impacted by fires and smoke from forest fires.

Finally, the study also recommended that forest fires should be recognised as a disaster under the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA). This could help strengthen the National Plan on Forest Fires through improvement in financial allocation under the NDMA and creation of a specialised cadre trained to contain and combat forest fires. Policymakers should also consider developing a real-time alerts system only for forest fire incidents.

Forests are managed by the state forest departments. The Union environment ministry supports the efforts of state / Union territory governments in preventing and controlling forest fires by providing financial assistance for various forest fire prevention and management measures under the centrally sponsored forest fire prevention and management scheme.

Forest fires are a regular phenomenon in India, often observed during summers. Severe fires occur in many forest types particularly dry deciduous forest, while evergreen, semi-evergreen and montane temperate forests are comparatively less prone. More than 36% of the country’s forest cover has been estimated to be prone to frequent forest fires.

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