India: Forest Fire Prevention and Control Strategies (IFFN No. 20)

Forest Fire Prevention and Control Strategies in India

(IFFN No. 20 – March 1999, p. 5-9)


Forestry is in the concurrent list of the constitution of India. Both the central the state Governments can make laws relating to forest management. Forest fire prevention is an important function of the Forest Protection Division in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. This paper gives in brief the mandate of the Union and State Governments on forest fire prevention and control measures, methods adopted by the various agencies in forest fire prevention, detection and control. The Government of India proposes to effectively monitor forest fire incidences in the country in order to create sound data base and quick detection infrastructure. It is also proposed to set up a National Institute of Forest Fire Management in the country for proper research, extension of technology and training of personnel.


The total geographic area of the country is 328.7 million ha. out of which the recorded forest cover is 76.50 million ha. The Forest cover thus, constitute 23.4% of the total geographic area of the nation. As per the latest state of forests report of the Forest Survey of India (FSI 1997), the actual forest cover exists only over 19.27% of the geographic area (63.3 million ha) out of which only 38 million ha of forests are well stocked (crown density >40%). The forests of India are endowed with rich fauna and flora. The plant wealth of India is about 45,000 species (12% of the global plant wealth). The standing timber stock in the country is estimated at 4740 million m3, and the annual increment of the forests is estimated to 87.62 million m3.

This resource has to meet the demand of a population of 950 million people and around 450 million cattle. As such, country has to meet the needs of 16% of the world’s population from 1% of the world forest resources. The same forest has also to cater for the 19% of the world cattle population.

The forests of the country are, therefore, under tremendous pressure. On the one hand the poor are heavily dependent on the forests for their subsistence needs, on the other, the growing liberalisation, industrialisation and fast spreading economic activities at the national and regional levels are putting pressure on the resource base. Over the years country’s forests have suffered serious depletion due to unrelenting pressure from increased demand for fuelwood, fodder, timber, inadequacy of protection and diversion of forest lands to agriculture and pastoral uses etc.

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Fig. 1. Open southern tropical dry deciduous forest in Central India (Maharashtra State): Frequent fires burning through these stands prevent the development of fire-sensitive trees and favour fire-tolerant species. Photo: J.G.Goldammer (GFMC)

Forest Fire Damages in India

Forest fires are a major cause of degradation of India’s forests. While statistical data on fire loss are weak, it is estimated that the proportion of forest areas prone to forest fires annually ranges from 33% in some states to over 90% in others. About 90% of the forest fires in India are started by humans. Forest Fires cause wide ranging adverse ecological, economic and social impacts. In a nutshell, fires cause

  • Loss of valuable timber resources and depletion of carbon sinks
  • Degradation of water catchment areas resulting in loss of water
  • Loss of biodiversity and extinction of plants and animals
  • Loss of wild life habitat and depletion of wild life
  • Loss of natural regeneration and reduction in forest cover and production
  • Global warming resulting in rising temperature
  • Loss of carbon sink resource and increase in percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere
  • Change in micro climate of the area making it unhealthy living conditions
  • Soil erosion affecting productivity of soils and production
  • Ozone layer depletion
  • Health problems leading to diseases
  • Indirect affect on agricultural production: Loss of livelihood for the tribals as approximately 65 million people are classified as tribals who directly depend upon collection of non-timber forest products from the forest areas for their livelihood.

India has about 1.7 million hectares of productive coniferous forests with such valuable timber and pulpwood species as fir (Abies spp.), spruce (Picea smithiana), deodar (Cedrus deodara), kail and chir pine (Pinus wallichiana and P.roxburghii). The estimated growing stock of these forests is over 200 million cubic metres the monetary value of which could be anywhere between Rs.40,000 to Rs.60,000 million (US$ 976 to 1464 million). In other states precious deciduous forests rich in bio-diversity get largely damaged by forest fires. The forests of North-East region of the country are hotspots of biodiversity. To safeguard these precious forests and their value, it is necessary to have more rigorous protection from fire damage than that has been accorded hitherto.

Major Forest Fire Disasters in India During the Past few Years

The normal fire season in India is from the month of February to mid June. India witnessed the most severe forest fires in the recent time during the summer of 1995 in the hills of Uttar Pradesh & Himachal Pradesh. The fires were very severe and attracted the attention of whole nation. An area of 677,700 ha was affected by fires. The quantifiable timber loss was around Rs. 17.50 crores (US$ 43 million; Rs. 1 crore = 10 million rupees). The loss to timber increment, loss of soil fertility, soil erosion, loss of employment, drying up of water sources and loss to bio-diversity were not calculated by the Committee appointed by the Government to enquire into the causes of fires, as these losses are immeasurable but very significant from the point of view of both economy as well as ecology. The fires in the hills resulted in smoke in the area for quite a few days. The smoke haze, however, vanished after the onset of rains. These fires caused changes in the micro-climate of the area in the form of soil moisture balance and increased evaporation. Lack of adequate manpower, communication and, water availability in the hills helped this fire spread rapidly reaching the crown level. The thick smoke spread over the sky affecting visibility up to 14,000 feet.

Estimation of Losses from Forest Fires

The statistics on forest fire damage are very poor in the country. In the absence of proper data, it is difficult to arrive at the accurate losses from the forest fires. Moreover, the losses from fires in respect of changes in biodiversity, carbons sequestration capability, soil moisture and nutrient losses etc. can not be measured but, nevertheless, are very significant from the point of view of ecological stability and environmental conservation. To a certain extent, the loss due to forest fires can be estimated based on the inventories made by the FSI as reported in the state of forest report 1995 and subsequent field observations conducted by them. The statistics of losses from forest fires from the various states of the union is still very sketchy and fragmented. Much of the data available does not reflect the ground situation and is grossly under reported. The total reported loss from the states of the union is around Rs 35 crores (US$ 7.3 million) annually.

The Forest Survey of India, data on forest fire attribute around 50% of the forest areas as fire prone. This does not mean that country’s 50% area is affected by fires annually. Very heavy, heavy and frequent forest fire damages are noticed only over 0.8%, 0.14% and 5.16% of the forest areas respectively. Thus, only 6.17% of the forests are prone to severe fire damage. In the absolute term, out of the 63 million ha of forests an area of around 3.73 million ha can be presumed to be affected by fires annually. At this level the annual losses from forest fires in India for the entire country have been moderately estimated at Rs 440 crores (US$ 107 million). This estimate does not include the loss suffered in the form of loss of biodiversity, nutrient and soil moisture and other intangible benefits. Based on the UNDP project evaluation report of 1987, the benefits of pilot project at todays’ prices if 40 million ha of forests are saved annually from forest fires due to implementation of modern forest fire control methods the net amount saved at todays’ prices would come to be Rs 280 crores (US$ 6.8 million).

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Fig. 2. The annually occurring surface fires in the open deciduous forests are carried by the grass and leaf litter layer. Many forest sites are burned over two or three times per year. Photo: J.G.Goldammer (GFMC)

Forest Fire Prevention in India

The subject of forests is in the concurrent list of the Constitution of India. The Central Government and State Governments are both competent to legislate on the issue. The issues relating to policy planning and finance is the primary responsibility of the Government of India. The field administration of the forests is the responsibility of the various state governments. The state Government thus have the direct responsibility of the management of forest resources of the country. The fire prevention and control measures are, therefore, carried out by the state forest departments. Each State and Union Territory has its own separate forest department. At the Government of India level, Inspector General of Forests & Special Secretary to the Government of India is the head of the professional forest service in the country. Inspector General of Forests & Special Secretary is assisted by additional Inspector General of Forest and Deputy Inspector Generals. Forest Fire prevention is looked after by the Forest Protection Division in the Ministry, which is headed by a Deputy Inspector General of Forests. The Ministry is implementing a plan scheme “Modern Forest Fire Control Methods” in India under which the state governments are provided financial assistance for fire prevention and control.

India has a history of scientific forest management for over 130 years. Forestry practices have been developed for a large number of forest types and species in India. The forests are managed through well prepared forest working plans and fire prevention and control has always constituted an important component of the working plan. Mostly, the prescriptions relate to employing traditional practices like creation and maintenance of fire lines, fire tracks, control burning, engaging fire watchers during the fire seasons etc. The villagers situated in and around forest areas are also legally supposed to assist the forest department staff in extinguishing the fires. These methods proved quite effective in controlling forest fires in the country, but gradually due to population pressure on forests and resultant conflicts and resource hunger, it became difficult to check forest fires in India through these methods. More and more biotic pressure increased the fire incidences resulting in poor regeneration in forest areas. In view of this, it was felt necessary to implement a modern forest fire fighting regime in the country. A UNDP project was implemented during 1985 to 1990 in the country to address the problem of resource damage from uncontrolled forest fires. The project primarily focused on involving a systematic approach to deal with forest fire damages through tapping of the knowledge gained by some developed countries in preventing, detecting and suppressing forest fires, and its transfer to India. Under this project, a pilot project was launched in two states viz: Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, where severe fires had affected around 50% of the forest area. The two states offered different ecological and physical characteristics and therefore, offered a good opportunity to try the technologies of forest fire prevention and control.

The project yielded excellent results both from the angle of technical suitability and economic efficiency. It clearly demonstrated that the fire incidents can be reduced drastically as in some cases the incidents were reduced by 90% in selected areas.

Based on the success of this project, the Government of India, Ministry of Environment & Forests initiated a scheme entitled “Modern Forest Fire Control Methods” since 1992-93. The scheme was launched during the 8th Plan period in 11 states where the major forest fires occur. The project covered 60% of the forest areas of the country. Under the scheme, the Government provided financial assistance to state forest departments for procurement of hand tools, fire resistant clothes and fire fighting equipments, wireless sets, construction of fire watch towers, fire finders, creation of fire lines and for research, training and publicity on fire fighting. Under the Central Government an air operation wing was maintained. The project has been continuing during the 9th plan period (1997-2002) and four more states are being added to the list. The Central component of the scheme envisages closing the Air Operation Wing (as it is felt to strengthen the traditional and cost effective methods) and introducing a component of close monitoring of forest fires for creation of data base through Forest Survey of India and involvement of research institutes and other agencies for generating more information on forest fires for better planning and management. Yet another dimension is being added to the project by involving the village forest protection committees constituted under the Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme. The JFM programme is being implemented in 22 states through 35,000 village forest protection committees over an area of 7 million ha. It is proposed to invoke the people’s interest and enlist their support for fire prevention and fire fighting operations. The Government is considering setting up of a National Institute of Forest Fire Management with satellite centres in different parts of India to bring the latest forest fire fighting technologies to India through proper research, training of personnel and technology transfer on a long-term basis. Notwithstanding the existing efforts, it is still felt that there is an acute shortage of resources for forest fire prevention, detection, and control and also for research, training and equipments. All attempts need to be made to obtain more financial resources and technical assistance within the country and also to tap the external funding sources for developing permanent fire fighting capabilities.

Deputy Inspector General of Forests Ministry of Environment & Forests
Government of India
Paryavaran Bhawan, C.G.O. Complex
Lodhi Road
New-Delhi 110 003
Fax: ++91-11-436-3232

IFFN No. 20
Country Notes

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