INDIA – Recognising the threat of forest fires, the government has published comprehensive data on forest fires for the first time in its State of Forest Report 2017.
Between 2003 and 2016, the forest fires have jumped by almost 38% from 24,450 to 33,664, in part because of better reporting but also from degradation of forests and dryness of foliage due to rising temperatures.
“Over 95% of the fires are caused by humans,” Siddhanta Das, director general of forests, said in a recent interview.
Experts believe the threat of forest fires is increasing as the soil is unable to retain moisture, with a warming climate.
The number of incidents has shown a rising trend, but there are also yearly spikes captured by the data, with the highest number of incidents being reported in 2009 (46,152).
“We now use more advanced methods of reporting fires. Thermal imagery data is overlaid on the forest maps,” Rajesh Kumar, a senior official at the Forest Survey of India, said.
Forest fires also release large amounts of carbon dioxide, threatening India’s greenhouse gas emission targets.
“The quality of forests should improve for it to store more carbon. At the rate at which we are doing it now, we will not be able to meet the Paris goals. Climate change has some relation to forest fires. The drier the forest is, the more prone it is to fires,” Das said.
North eastern states have reported a greater number of forest fires than any other region. The higher numbers are linked to ‘jhum cultivation’, also called ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. “The government will use certain strategies to wean away locals from jhum cultivation,” CK Mishra, secretary of environment ministry, said.
According to a ministry estimate, India loses about Rs 550 crore every year because of damages from forest fires.
Recognising the enormity of the challenge, the government reconstituted the ‘Intensification of Forest Management Scheme’ into the ‘Forest Fire Prevention & Management Scheme’ last year. However, only about 54% of the Rs 4,940 lakh allocation to states was released in 2017-18 as it was an ad hoc release as the scheme was reconstituted.
Moderately dense forests are more prone to forest fires, according to the data. In August, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) asked the ministry to frame a national policy for prevention and control of forest fires within three months.