India — The past few weeks have seen Uttarakhand endure its worst forest fire in recent times. Over 3,000 hectares of land has been brutally wiped out. Over 6,000 personnel from various state and central agencies are working together to bring the situation under control. According to some reports, authorities have been successful in dousing the fire in most areas and life in these parts is slowly returning to normal. Ecologist Rajesh Thadani, who is senior fellow and executive director at the Dehradun-based Centre for Ecology Department and Research, talks to Dhruv Munjal about the possible causes of this massive fire, our preparedness in dealing with such situations and the irreversible damage it has caused. Edited excerpts:
What could be the possible causes of this fire? What is your assessment of the situation?
The period from mid-February to the end of June is the season for forest fires in Uttarakhand. This year, however, the fire has been significantly more intense than previous years. A poor monsoon, unusually high temperatures and low humidity are all important contributing factors. Uttarakhand, at this time of the year, often experiences what locals describe as “chhoti baarsish” (little rainfall), but this has been very weak this season. Low winter precipitation is another critical aspect. But having said that, those well versed with the area were expecting this; it’s just that in the last 10-15 days, outsiders and other people have actually taken notice. I think the dramatic pictures circulated on social media have had a big role to play in getting people to know about these fires. We’ve had bad fires every 10 years or so.
Uttarakhand is prone to forest fires. Could this one have been prevented?
Low-ground fires are common in the forests of Uttarakhand. Villagers set land on fire to burn agricultural residue. Such fires are generally calculated and controlled reasonably well. Several pine forests are set on fire every year to burn off the slippery needles and encourage grass and fodder growth. The real problem arrives when such fires get out of hand. When the fire heats up too much, it becomes a “canopy fire”. This is exactly what has happened this time around. On this occasion, even the oak forests – which are generally spared – have been penetrated. Bringing this to a halt, as you can imagine, is extremely arduous.
Ecologically, such a massive fire has adverse effects. What is the kind of damage that has been caused?
With a fire of such magnitude, it is impossible to estimate the exact loss. But old trees, and wildlife that cannot move out of the affected areas quickly enough have been worst hit. Young seedlings of trees are burnt down, though some of these will resprout. However, the biggest damage may be caused to glaciers. Fires release a considerable amount of black soot into the atmosphere, which gets collected on the top of glaciers up in the Himalayas. This accelerates the melting process.
Is preparedness in dealing with such situations a concern?
In such emergency situations, timing is everything. The response this time has been good and I know of many villagers who responded very quickly and did their best to fight fires, but there is a huge need to train more people. Currently, the state and Centre are doing all they can, but in the long-term, we require people who can act instantly. The forest department is chipping in but it is woefully short-staffed. We need to promote fire-fighting, and the only way to do that is to involve more locals. Only greater local participation can help us prevent such natural disasters.
Preparedness is a continuous process and as is the case with most things, here too, prevention is the best cure. Awareness of the problem is essential as a large number of these fires could have been prevented if people were just more careful and alert.
During the colonial period, the British set up fire lines to prevent such incidents. Some say that the state has done very little to maintain them.
Fire lines are still used in many forests and particularly in pine forests. Even roads and highways can be used as fire lines or fire breaks. However, setting them up is no easy task. During the months of March and April, pine needles fall in abundance. And, you have to manually clear up the land for the setting up of a fire line.
Also, typically fire lines help in restricting low-ground fires and are not made wide enough to be able to limit the more devastating crown fires from crossing. When large fires break out, as has been the case this year, they jump across several fire lines. So, I don’t think even proper fire lines could have helped in the current scenario.