India: Controlling Forest Fire Incidences by Generating Awareness (IFFN No. 20)

Controlling Forest Fire Incidences by Generating Awareness
A Case Study from Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Coimbatore, India

(IFFN No. 20 – March, p. 10-15)

The peninsular India constitutes one of the mega biodiversity zones of the world which is abundant with unique and diversified floral and faunal wealth. The prevailing tropical climate coupled with physical and environmental factors have unitedly evolved impact on resources pattern and many eco-subsystems which is highly complex and fragile in nature. The land ecosystem is facing mounting problems in the cruel hands of human beings. One of the causative factors is forest fire, either natural or man-made, which periodically covers larger areas in the tropics destroying timber, other properties and life beyond measures.

In India the ecosystems are under severe threat due to the recurrent fires apart from the anthropogenic pressure on the forests which is attributed to the degradation, soil erosion, reduced productivity etc. Every year some or other part of the forests in India is facing the agony in the cruel hands of mankind by putting fire intentionally in the forests which causes severe damages to the regeneration as well as the soils.

Forest fires and indiscriminate grazing are among the most important factors that affect natural regeneration in the forests. According to the Forest Survey of India, an average of 54.7% of forests are affected by fire and 72.1% of the forest area is subjected to grazing. More than 95% of the forest fire incidents in India are human-caused, the main fire starters being the graziers.

In India forest fires are a significant and one of the increasing contributory factors in this degradation process, although the extent of total damage is widely disputed. According to the study by Srivastava, during the sixth five year plan (1980-85) 17,852 fires were reported affecting an area of 5.7 million ha or an annual average of some 1.14 million ha (Sangal 1989). Even this range may be regarded as conservative. Data collected by the Forest Survey of India indicate that the forest area that is affected by annual fires may be as high as 37 million ha (Ministry of Environment & Forests, 1987).

Forest fire and its management have long history in Indian forestry. The traditional method of fire protection in the past was used to be an elaborate network of fire lines, block lines, and guidelines. Though it was successful when the population pressure was low, it no longer works effectively against the will of the person to put fire now-a-days. Therefore intensive management to prevent, detect and suppress forest fires is the need of the hour by evolving latest strategies to protect the environment and the atmosphere, with the use of modern fire equipments and other mechanical aids, apart from involving local people by creating awareness in regard to biodiversity.

The existing human resources pattern in the forest department at present disproportionate with its vastness in extent and undulation to be handled by the forest staff against illicit cutting, poaching, sandalwood smuggling and more so from forest fire. On an average 500 ha of forests have to be patrolled by one forest guard, and it does not seem to be likely that this human resource will be sufficient to detect and prevent all forest fires.

The forests of India are characterized by high biodiversity with approximately 35,000 plant species and 75,000 animal species. India is also a place where scientific forestry has been in practice for more than 130 years. From time immemorial, forests were looked upon both tangible and intangible benefits. However, from the 1970’s the stress or focus on tangible benefits has slowly shifted to indirect aspects of forests such as environmental and ecological benefits. From 1972 Stockholm Conference onwards, the central theme of every department issue is on environment and ecology. This does not mean that the production aspects of forestry are less important. India has approximately one fifth of the land area under control of the State Forest Departments. Nearly 600 million rural people depend on forest either for their sustenance or for livelihood. Almost 30% of India’s population still live below poverty line.

Hence, the rich land resource in the custody of the forest department is important to meet their basic needs of firewood, fodder and non-wood forest produces. As a result of uncontrolled forest utilization, however, forests are rapidly degraded and depleted.

India is predominantly an agrarian society with extended agricultural systems which border and merge with reserved forest areas. From Jammu-Kashmir (northernmost part of India) to Kanniyakumari (southernmost part of India), the villages are located on the fringes of forest. More than 70% population are dependent directly or indirectly on the forest. For example, cattle has free access to forest for grazing throughout the year. Fuel wood for cooking comprising of many species comes out from the reserved forest.

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Fig. 1. In India nearly 600 million rural people depend on forest either for their sustenance or for livelihood. The vast majority of forest fires are caused by people, mostly as a consequence of utilization of wood and non-wood forest product utilization. Photo: J.G.Goldammer (GFMC).

In general the people living on the fringes of forests are unaware of the biodiversity concept. Their concept of forest is just confined to big animals such as elephants, tigers, panthers, etc., as well as big trees such as Teak, Sal, Deodar, Rose wood, and others, and they are totally unaware of the micro-flora and micro-fauna which are of least or no value to them. In the recent past even when the scorching sun has given a severe impact on the rain forest, one can imagine the fate of Indian Forest which are put on flames every year whether intentionally or unintentionally due to heavy pressure of the population all along the reserve forests boundaries. One or the other part of the forest area from northernmost to southernmost region is facing agony of the forest fire incidences in the hands of human beings at the peak period of summer (from December to May in Southern India and March to June in Northern India) in the process of which regeneration composition of the land is getting changed slowly and slowly and paving way to emergence of only fire hardy species.

In the process of civilization, modern humans have emerged out with developmental processes which causes so much agony to the ‘Nature God’, it is badly reflecting in the form of environmental degradation and causing global warming. The recent fires in Indonesia, Australia and South Mexico has drawn the attention of the environmentalists to the sufferings of human beings as well as wild animals. Most endangered species for example Orangutan have lost habitats in some parts of Indonesia and it was forced to rehabilitate in some other place. One can imagine the fate of unrecognised flora and fauna.

Implementation of Innovative Scheme

Considering the disastrous impact on the forest wealth an innovative scheme was launched to prevent forest fire by involving the local rural masses in creating environmental awareness. The Scheme was implemented in Coimbatore division of Tamil Nadu, India which is a part of Western Ghats and also one of the important biospheres of the world. The selected area used to get affected with fire by the graziers, illicit cutters, poachers, etc. Western Ghats constitutes prominent and fascinating features of peninsular India. It runs parallel to West coast ranging from Tapti valley in Gujarat to Kanniyakumari of Tamil Nadu covering a distance of 1600 km covering a total area of 51,185 km2 out of which Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu cover an area of 12,760 km2.

On account of its geographical position it intercepts South west monsoon winds which is the chief source of rain for the greater part of the country. Due to prevailing tropical climate the variability in the altitude and amount of rainfall the region enjoys the boundary of biological resources. Physical and environmental factors have unitedly evolved impact on resources pattern and many sub ecosystem. They have become highly complex and very fragile under the sub systems. This Western Ghats include one of the important biosphere of India viz, Nilgiri biosphere which is the unique and richest bio-geographical zone and fascinating feature in the Indian subcontinent holding multifarious endemic floristic and faunal wealth. The Western Ghats are occupied by more prominent species viz Tectona grandis, Dalbergia latifolia, Terminalia paniculata, Terminalia chebula, Terminalia bellarica, Terminalia arjuna, Pterocarpus marsupium, Adina cordifolia, Grewia tilifolia, Gmelina arborea, Santalum album, Syzygium cumini, Mangifera indica, Shola spp., etc. The Nilgiri biosphere reserve also forms part of important corridors for the movement of elephants with regional connectivity. It is having fragile ecosystem of Shola grasslands which face mounting problems due to overutilization. One of the most important causative factors of degradation is wildfire which has contributed to the alteration of these ecosystems.

The Coimbatore Division selected for this programme has a size of about 680 km2 with headquarters in Coimbatore City. Most of the forested region is located on the eastern slopes of the Nilgiri Hills with altitudes ranging from 245 m a.s.l. in the Bhavani valley up to 1450 m. Most of the Division, including the forested areas, lies in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats, with an annual rainfall of about 750 mm; the high elevations receive about 2000 mm precipitation mainly during the Northeast monsoon rains in October-November. Bhavani, Moyar, Noyilar and Walayar are the major rivers. The Division encloses six forest ranges (Coimbatore, Boluvampatti, Mettupalayam, Perianaickenpalayam, Karamadai and Sirumugai)

The Division is an important part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve with many areas, even though small in extent, forming important corridors ensuring regional connectivity for large mammal populations. Nearly 60% of the forests are dry deciduous and hence highly vulnerable to fire. Most of the remaining moist forests have open grasslands that are highly flammable in the dry months. The Division is rich in commercial timber species such as teak, rosewood and sandal wood and in non-timber forest produces such as tamarind (Tamarindus indica), Soapnut (Sapindus emarginatus), gallnut (Terminalia belirica), Nellikai (Phyllanthus emblica), seekai (Acacia sinuata), neem seeds (Azadirachta indica), avaram (Cassia auriculata), and bark of Cassia fistula.

Forest fires are a major recurrent management problem, even though the incidence and extent may vary from year to year depending primarily on rainfall during the dry fire season. Fire mostly affects the dry deciduous forests on the eastern slopes in January-March. It is believed that most of the fires are deliberately started by graziers (to get a fresh growth of grass), fuel wood and charcoal collectors, non-timber forest produce (NTFP) collectors, poachers, etc. Control of forest fires in this Division had followed traditional forestry practices of maintaining a network of firelines, and clearing them and conducting controlled burning before the fire season. Early detection of fire by a large number of seasonally appointed fire watchers, and once detected its containment with some level of local participation were standard and regular practice during the fire season. Even though relatively successful in the long past, for the last many years there has been a progressive failure in the prevention and control of forest fires. It has been felt that the incidence and intensity of fires have been on the increase, particularly considering the reduction in forest area that has taken place. This failure is attributed to several reasons: a progressive reduction in the allocation of resources for fire prevention and control (in terms of funds, personnel, equipment etc); there has been an increase in the interaction between people and forests (e.g. grazing, fuelwood collection) that leads to fire; there has been an alienation between people and forests in their neighbourhood due to various reasons so that the local people are no longer interested in cooperating in the control of forest fire.

In this background a project was launched in Coimbatore Forest Division, Western Ghats, to generate awareness among the rural masses and a greater success was achieved in the control of forest fire through the participation of local people. We did not however decide upon the form or extent of participation, leaving it to the course of events that would follow once we initiated an interaction with the local people.

We began in mid 1994 with a survey of human and cattle population inside and in the periphery of the reserved forests. We identified 49 human settlements inside the reserved forests with human population of about 10,000 people and a livestock population of about 5000 animals (goats, sheep, cows, buffaloes). We also identified 97 villages adjoining reserved forests, with a human population of about 240,000 people, and a livestock population of about 15,000 animals. A survey was made of the incidence and extent of forest fire from 1991 to 1995, based on records that are maintained by the forest department. These are records are likely to underestimate both incidence varied from 10 (in 1994 and 1995) to 55 in 1992. The area affected varied from about 20 ha in 1992 to about 40 ha in 1994. The percentage of area affected by fire varied from 0.06 to 0.30%. This is not a realistic figure since most of the forest fires are not reported by the lower staff due to various constraints. Some of the reserved forests were more affected than others and consistently so across the years. Villages inside and adjoining these reserve forests (23 in all) were selected for a campaign against forest fire.

The campaign to enlighten the villagers covered all media; by way of dum-dum in settlements deep inside the forest, pamphlets and posters, marches with loud speakers and placards, and local cable TV net work. Following this, public meetings were held in the centre of villages in which villagers were encouraged to speak extempore about forests and forest fire. From the forest department we explained the importance of forests at the local, national and global scale and the havoc that forest fire can play. The need to control forest fire, the necessity of local people’s participation in the fire control, and the background in which stiff penalties were imposed on people who deliberately started forest fires were explained. We found that villagers were keen to listen to their own people speaking rather than uniformed forest department staff. In most of the villages there was a good response during the meetings with many people coming forward to speak about their perception of forest fires and their impacts, and ways of controlling them. Many offered their full cooperation and some in return requested for specific services to be rendered by the forest department. Most of these requests related to long standing demands of the villagers that did not come within the jurisdiction of the forest department such as a tube well, periodic visits by a doctor etc. Meeting most of these demands required the role of forest department to coordinate with other government departments with no major financial commitments. Efforts were made by us to get these requests fulfilled, in many cases with success.

The initial meetings in the villages and attempts at fulfilling their genuine long standing demands often successfully, was followed by another round of meetings, one in each village. The major purpose of these meetings was to form a fire protection committee in each village. The major objective of forming such committees was for them to follow up on decisions on action needed to be taken at the local level in fire protection. No particular direction was given by us towards the composition of such committees, except that the local Range officer was the president. The number of members varied from 10 to 46, consisting of men and women from different walks of life. A register was opened which kept a record of the meetings and their outcome.

Massive campaigns was taken up by the forest department only during the fire season. Person to person canvassing is being done by the committee members, with support from the local forest department staff in the form of educational materials and training sessions conducted by the Range officers.

In 1994-95, the incidence of forest fire was minimal due to unseasonal rains.The campaign was also taken in the beginning stages. Other than an increase in the voluntary participation of local people in the fire control, it is difficult to evaluate the impact of the campaign at that juncture. In 1995-96, the incidence of forest fire was very low throughout the Western Ghats. Among the 23 committees that were formed in the villages, some were very active in campaigning against forest fire, and in participating in its control. In some villages the response was lukewarm and in the others none. A participation and its impact on the prevention and control of forest fire is yet to be made, partly because it is too early to make such an assessment.

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Fig. 2. Posters and billboards are important carriers of fire prevention messages throughout India. Photo: J.G.Goldammer (GFMC).


We have learnt three important lessons from the above small experiment in eliciting peoples’ participation in forest fire control. The first is about village committees. We found that committees are best formed after a period of interaction with people, and not as a first step. Committees formed without a period of interaction often contained many members whose initial enthusiasm withered away too soon. An initial period of interaction, on the other hand, often brought forward individuals who had a long term commitment to the cause.

The second lesson was that the forest department representative was a critical person whose presence in committee meetings was necessary to sustain the interest of committee in forest fire control. Without him the committees itself tended to underestimate its importance, and with his continued absence the committee tended to wither away.

A third lesson was regarding the sustainability of this initiative. It is only two years since this experiment began. In order to judge whether it is effective and worth emulating elsewhere, it is necessary to continue for a number of years. Whether this would happen or not depends to a large extent on the interest of forest department itself, especially the local and middle-level staff.


Forest fire and its management have long history in Indian Forestry. In 1954, the Chief Conservator of Forests of Madhya Pradesh, Mr. C.E.Hewetson, stated that the conception of forest fire protection was one of the most creative and far reaching in its effects. Not only it was essential to allow the drier forest to regenerate, but also it was and it is the most powerful single weapon in soil conservation. It was a tragedy that this idea of complete fire protection gradually eroded away by the urge for economy in expenditure. The most successful method of fire protection in the past used to be an elaborate network of fire lines, blocklines and guidelines, and their early clearing and burning. This system used to work very well and still does when population pressure on the forest is low. With increasing human population in and around forest areas, and their dependence for fodder, fuel wood and other non-timber forest produce, the traditional systems of fire control no longer works effectively. The human resources available with the forest department have not increased with increasing human pressure on the forest. On an average in India, nearly 500 ha of forest is patrolled by one guard and one watcher. It is practically impractical to monitor and control the forest fire in such a large area which is having free access by the intruders from all sides. Unnatural forest fire causes imbalance to the nature which reflects very badly on the biodiversity and reduces floral and faunal wealth. Forests in developing countries which are adjoining the habitat of rural settlements where the people are not aware of the importance of the forests. The whole stretch of the forest area is not fenced and it is having a free access from all sides by the intruders causing tremendous pressure on these forests. Unless man himself realises the importance of forests it is not going to work effectively for the conservation of natural forests. At this juncture awareness campaign will go a long way to bring down the forest fire incidences through the pioneer leaders who comes forward for the cause of conservation of natural resources.


Sangal, P.M. 1989. A suggested classification of forest fires in India by types and causes. Paper presented at the National Seminar on Forest Fire Fighting, Kulamaru (Kerala), 2-3 November 1989.

Rajiv K. Srivastava, I.F.S.
Deputy Conservator of Forests Bharathi Park Road
Coimbatore – 641 043
Tamil Nadu

See also: Fire Photo Archive of India

IFFN No. 20
Country Notes

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