17,000 forest fires every year, but no reliable database

    17,000 forest fires every year, but no reliable database

9 May 2008

published by howrah.org 

India — India reports more than 17,000 cases of forest fire annually but the Centre is yet to establish a reliable database to determine spatial and temporal patterns of fire occurrence which are crucial in identifying sensitive areas and periods for forest fire. Not many know that forest officials remain on tenterhooks from February till May, as most of the forest fire cases are reported during this season. Of the total percentage of forest area in the country, 54.7 per cent is prone to fire, which damages more than 1 million hectare of forest annually and economic loss about Rs 440 crores. The famous Jim Corbett Park and Rajaji National Park are in news these days as hundreds of hectares of these two forest areas have been destroyed by a raging fire, putting the lives of animals under threat and adding pollution.

But despite all this loss, the Centre has no precise data related to actual area burnt annually, ecological, economic and environmental consequences of fires. The Centre has also admitted that it has no comprehensive database on the subject. One of the main reasons behind this is the fact that the Centre is largely dependent on states to furnish this data and states still continue with conventional methods of mitigation. In South Asia, 90 per cent of forest fires are caused by people.

“India still needs to set up advanced mechanism for issues related to forest fire like danger rating system, burnt area mapping and fire-risk zones. Most of the times, forest officials and local communities have to use the traditional methods to curtail these forest fires,” said a senior official of Union ministry of environment and forests. The country still depends on mitigation methods like creation and maintenance of fire lines, deployment of fire watchers when it should be looking at essential and modern equipment for fire suppression including hand tools, fire resistant clothing, mechanised equipment and water tenders. Also, with no regional forest fire network present in South Asia at the official level, there is no data available on such fires or mechanism to prevent these forest fires from spreading.

But officials said that not all forest fires are useless. Despite causing degradation of forests, ecological changes, deterioration of social and economic conditions, forest fire is used to maintain wildlife habitat in certain protected areas and providing nutrients to the young plants. Ministry officials said that there is a need for a pilot initiative to link ongoing field-level monitoring and fire reporting to a national level database, which can help in establishing a comprehensive database.

This will help is keeping a track of number of fires that occur every year, area burnt annually, ecological, economic and environmental consequences of fires, whether detrimental or beneficial.

Officials also said that forest fire should be treated as a natural calamity and therefore, should be exempted from the need to report to the accountant-general’s office as “there is a tendency to under report forest fires given that economic losses beyond a certain value have to be reported to the AG office”.

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