India, with a forest cover of 76.4 million hectares, contains a variety of climate zones, including the tropical south, northwestern deserts, Himalayan mountains, and the wet north-east. Forests are widely distributed in the country. India’s forests are endowed with a variety of biomes and biological communities. The forest vegetation in the country varies from tropical evergreen forests in the West Coast and in the Northeast to alpine forests in the Himalayas in the North. In between the two extremes, there are semi-evergreen forests, deciduous forests, sub-tropical broad-leaved hill forests, sub-tropical pine forests, and sub-tropical montane temperate forests.
With increasing population pressure, the forest cover of the country is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Along with various factors, forest fires are a major cause of degradation of Indian forests. According to a Forest Survey of India Report, about 50 percent of forest areas in the country are fire prone (ranging from 50 percent in some states to 90 percent in the others). About 6 percent of the forests are prone to severe fire damage.
Ecological, economic and social impacts of the forest fire
The ecological and socio-economic consequences of wildland fires in India include:
Loss of timber, loss of bio-diversity, loss of wildlife habitat, global warming, soil erosion, loss of fuelwood and fodder, damage to water and other natural resources, loss of natural regeneration. Estimated average tangible annual loss due to forest fires in country is Rs.440 crore (US$ 100 millions approximately).
The vulnerability of the Indian forests to fire varies from place to place depending upon the type of vegetation and the climate. The coniferous forest in the Himalayan region comprising of fir (Abies spp.), spruce (Picea smithiana), Cedrus deodara, Pinus roxburgii and Pinus wallichiana etc. is very prone to fire. Every year there are one or two major incidences of forest fire in this region. The other parts of the country dominated by deciduous forests are also damaged by fire (see Table 1).
Table 1. Susceptibility and vulnerability of Indian forests to wildfire
Type of Forests
Various regions of the country have different normal and peak fire seasons, which normally vary from January to June. In the plains of northern and central India, most of the forest fires occur between February and June. In the hills of northern India fire season starts later and most of the fires are reported between April and June. In the southern part of the country, fire season extends from January to May. In the Himalayan region, fires are common in May and June.
Summary of major wild fire impacts on people, property, and natural resources during the 1990s
During the 1990s, several forest fires occurred in the hills of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. From 1995 to 1999, fire hazards in these two states assumed dangerous dimensions. An area of 677 700 hectares was affected by these fires. The estimated timber loss from these hazards was US $ 43 million. Other losses due to these fires included loss of soil fertility, soil erosion, loss of employment, drying up of water resources, and loss of bio-diversity. These fires brought a major change in the microclimate of the region in the form of soil moisture balance and increased evaporation. The dense smoke from the fires affected visibility up to 14 000 feet.
Beside these major forest fires, the losses from the other fires reported from 13 states for the period 1994-1996 came to US $ 20 million. One other major fire, reported from the state of Tamil Nadu, for the year 1996-1997 in sandal wood forest caused a loss of approximately US $ 43 million. Losses in productivity of the land, impacts on regeneration of species, and deleterious impacts on water shed also resulted from the forest fires.
Figure 1.Regularly occurring surface fires and the impacts of browsing and trampling by cattle lead to severe site degradation in the steep slopes of the Himalayan foothills in India. The photograph shows a typical situation in a Pinusroxburghii forest near Nainital, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: GFMC.
In India there are no comprehensive data to indicate the loss to forests in terms of area burned, values, and volume and regeneration damaged by fire. The available forest fire statistics are not reliable because they underestimate fire numbers and area burned. The reason behind this is attributed to the fear of accountability. However, Forest Survey of India in a country-wide study in 1995 estimated that about 1.45 million hectares of forest are affected by fire annually. According to an assessment of the Forest Protection Division of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, 3.73 million hectares of forests are affected by fires, annually in India.
Table 2. Extent of fire incidence in forest areas of the country (based on the inventory conducted by the Forest Survey of India since its inception)
In India there are very few cases of fire due to natural causes. The majority of the forest fires (99 percent) in the country are human caused. It is widely acknowledged that most of these fires are caused by the people deliberately and have a close relationship to their socio-economic conditions. Grazing, shifting cultivation, and collection of minor forest products by villagers are major causes of fires in India. Carelessness of the picnickers, travellers, and campers are also responsible for forest fires.
Operational fire management systems and organizations
According to the Constitution of India, the central and state governments in the country are enabled to legislate on forestry issues. The implementation part of the forest policy/programmes lies with the state government. Thus, fire prevention, detection, and suppression activities are the responsibility of the state governments’ forestry departments. The policy, planning, and financing are the primary responsibility of the Central Government. There is generally no separate department for carrying out forest fire management in the states. The regular staff of the forest departments in the states carries out various activities of forest fire management. During forest fire seasons in some of the divisions, fire watchers are recruited by the state governments as a special provision. At the central level, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is the ministry responsible for forest conservation and protection. Forest fire management is administered by the “Forest Protection Division” of the Ministry, which is headed by a Deputy Inspector General of Forests. The Ministry is implementing a plan called “Modern Forest Fire Control Methods” in India under which state governments are provided financial assistance for fire prevention and control. This assistance is being used by the state governments for procuring hand tools, fire resistant clothes, firefighting tools, radios, fire watch towers, fire finders, creation of fire lines, research, training, and publicity on firefighting. This project is carried out in fourteen states and covers more than 70 percent of the forest area of the country.
In India, Joint Forest Management (JFM) Committees have been established at the village level to involve people in forest protection and conservation. At present there are 36 165 JFM committees throughout the country, covering an area of more than 10.24 million hectares. These JFM committees also have been given responsibilities to protect the forests from fires. For this purpose, the Modern Forest Fire Control plan is being revised and JFM is being made an integral component of the forest fire prevention strategy. Use of aircraft and helicopters has not been very cost effective in the fire management program and the Air Operation Wing is being closed down. For emergency purposes, however, a provision for hiring aircraft for transportation of crews and water is being maintained. The Government of India has issued national forest fire prevention and control guidelines. Salient features of the guidelines include identification of vulnerable areas on maps, creation of a data bank on forest fires, evolving fire dangers, fire forecasting system, provisions for a crisis management group, involvement of JFM committees, and efficient enforcement of legal provisions.
In India, there is an urgent need to initiate research in the fields of fire detection, suppression, and fire ecology for better management of forest fires. The research and technology developed in western countries always suitable for the Indian environment. Thus, it is essential that original research specific for Indian conditions be conducted. The Government is considering setting up a National Institute of Forest Fire Management with satellite centres in different parts of the country to bring the latest forest fire fighting technologies to India through proper research, training of personnel, and technology transfer on a long term basis.
Public policies concerning fire
India’s National Forest Policy (1988) presents a visionary strategy for forest conservation and management and emphasizes protection of forests against encroachment, fire, and grazing. It states that “The incidence of forest fires in the country is high. Standing trees and fodder are destroyed on a large scale and natural regeneration annihilated by such fires. Special precautions should be taken during the fire season. Improved and modern management practices should be adopted to deal with forest fire”. This policy provides a positive step towards protection of forests from fire. The legal and policy framework exists in support of fire protection in the country.
The needs of the fire management
The incidence of forest fires in the country is on the increase and more area is burned each year. The major cause of this failure is the piecemeal approach to the problem. Both the national focus and the technical resources required for sustaining a systematic forest fire management programme are lacking in the country. Important forest fire management elements like strategic fire centres, coordination among Ministries, funding, human resource development, fire research, fire management, and extension programmes are missing.
Taking into consideration the serious nature of the problem, it is necessary to make some major improvements in the forest fire management strategy for the country. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, has prepared a National Master Plan for Forest Fire Control. This plan proposes to introduce a well-coordinated and integrated fire-management programme that includes the following components:
Prevention of human-caused fires through education and environmental modification. It will include silvicultural activities, engineering works, people participation, and education and enforcement. It is proposed that more emphasis be given to people participation through Joint Forest Fire Management for fire prevention.
Prompt detection of fires through a well coordinated network of observation points, efficient ground patrolling, and communication networks. Remote sensing technology is to be given due importance in fire detection. For successful fire management and administration, a National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) and Fire Forecasting System are to be developed in the country.
Fast initial attack measures.
Vigorous follow up action.
Introducing a forest fuel modification system at strategic points.
Each of the above components plays an important role in the success of the entire system of fire management. Special emphasis is to be given to research, training, and development.
IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:
Vinod K. Bahuguna
Ministry of Environment and Forests
New Delhi, India
Ministry of Rural Development
New Delhi, India
Deputy Inspector General of Forests
Ministry of Environment & Forests
Government of India
Paryavaran Bhawan, C.G.O. Complex
New-Delhi 110 003
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