India –-After a couple of years of relative calm, fires have again ravaged the forests of Uttarakhand this summer. More blazes were reported and more forest area affected this season than the past two years put together, as an unusually hot and dry summer turned the state’s pine woods into tinderboxes.
According to the state’s forest department, as many as 1,316 cases of fires have been reported till June 24 this summer. Fires have burnt 2,808 hectares of forests, more than 80% of these in the susceptible pine zone.
“Except for the past week when the state got good rains, it has been exceptionally dry this summer,” said R B S Rawat, the state’s principal chief conservator of forests. “Temperatures crossed 35 degrees Celsius in many hill towns. The last time the state saw such heat was in 2009, which was an extreme drought year.”
Experts said this year’s extended winter also played a part in the spread of forest fires. With rising temperature, pine leaves (also called needles) normally drop in April. These dry leaves are highly flammable. So, through April, the forest department conducts controlled burning to keep the droppings to a minimum.
“Due to low temperatures in April this year, the pine droppings were delayed and staggered over a longer period, making it difficult for the forest department to control through limited burning,” said Dr L M S Palni, director of the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development in Almora.
The heat, coupled with forests carpeted with dry leaves, meant that the potential for fires was high this year. Add to this increasing visitor footfalls in the hills and the fiery triangle was complete.
“We found people responsible for almost all fires in the state’s forests,” said Rawat. “At many places, villagers set jungles afire to aid the growth of grass for their cattle. Many fires start accidentally when someone drops a burning beedi or cigarette. With a large number of tourists and pilgrims moving through the state, it is difficult to stop these fires.”
Forest department personnel too are accused of starting fires. “The forest men are known to start fires at places where they haven’t met replantation targets,” said Almora-based social activist Raghu Tiwari.
On June 5, the World Environment Day, the state’s new chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna, announced that fire lines in Uttarakhand would be increased from 2,500km to 9,000km. Fire lines are deliberate gaps in vegetation meant to stop a blaze from spreading.
What the CM did not refer to was the increasing apathy of villagers towards forest fires. Puran Chand Tiwari, a veteran activist of Uttarakhand’s forest movement, sees this as a major reason for forest infernos raging uncontrollably.
“As people move away from traditional occupations, they are less dependent on forests. Earlier, villagers kept a chowkidar to guard against fires and everyone rushed to put out blazes. Nowadays, nobody bothers,” Tiwari said.
Dehradun-based environmentalist Anil Joshi said people should be given a stake in stopping fires. “We need to create jobs of forest firemen in villages who would be given incentives for putting out fires. That’s the only effective way of checking the burning of the state’s natural wealth.”
State losing biodiversity
Most forests around the world catch fire. Experts say some forest fires are beneficial, helping in regeneration. But due to increasing frequency, the pine wood fires in Uttarakhand are reducing the state’s biodiversity and may be changing the nature of many forests, besides threatening wildlife and altering the micro-climate of the region.
“Under the natural cycle, pine forests on an average catch fire once every four years,” says Dr L M S Palni of the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. “If fires are more frequent than the natural cycle, as appears to be the case in many areas, the forest scrub is likely to face permanent damage.”
Palni says often fires from pine forests spread to other zones, where the damage is more serious. “Such crossover fires are also leading to pine trees encroaching into other kind of forests, thus reducing biodiversity,” he says.
In nature, a forest fire is a random event, says Dr P P Bhojvaid, director of the Dehra Dun-based Forest Research Institute. “If it turns into a predictable event, we are bound to be losing biodiversity.”