INDIA – NEW DELHI – This May, number and extent of forest fires are possibly the highest in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in the past five years, satellite data shows. An analysis of forest fires in the two states by NASA scientists reflects there were more than 13,000 fires this May compared to only 2927 last year. Meteorologists have linked it to a relatively long dry spell April onward and extreme heat even in the hills. In 2012, there were more than 14,000 fires in May.
Hiren Jethva, research scientist, Universities Space Research Association (USRA) at Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center analysed the total number of fire spots detected by the VIIRS sensor on-board Suomi-NPP platform of NOAA-NASA. “I think drier atmosphere coupled with rising mercury levels might have triggered these forest fires,” he told TOI. An analysis of forest fires detected by another satellite Aqua, between 2002 and 2016, also reflects similar trends with 2012 being an anomaly recording more than 2000 fires compared to less than 100 in all other years. While there have been no specific reports of how wildlife has been affected in these areas, Forest Survey of India (FSI) scientists and forest department officials confirmed that there may have been extensive damage to biodiversity on the forest floor, in some cases even canopies have caught fire. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) linked this to the fact that there was no impact of western disturbance or wet spell in May. “Trees are dry which is leading to the spread of fire. A western disturbance was there but it affected only Jammu and Kashmir. This coupled with intense heating and vertical sunrays may have caused the fires to spread. There were heat waves in Himachal Pradesh and parts of J&K too,” explained Kuldeep Shrivastava, scientist at the Regional Meteorological Centre of IMD.
Forest officials said 2016 was another year with a massive number of forest fires but the peak was in April end instead of May. “None of the fires are natural. They have been set by people. We have noticed that people set fire to the dry chir pine needles every year. This year, people couldn’t set fire in April because of the thunderstorms so they are making use of the dry spell now. The weather conditions are leading to fires spreading to large areas. People have to set fire to ensure there is growth of grass,” said E Vikram, deputy director, Forest Survey of India. The Forest Department of Uttarakhand has stopped planting chir pine since 2005 and has been focusing on species like deodar and oak. While FSI officials said there is no clear trend of forest fires rising steadily in recent years, Ravi Chopra of Dehradun based People’s Science Institute said alienation of people from forest conservation may also be a factor in the spread of fires. “People say the forest department sets fire while foresters say otherwise. But we have noticed that unlike 30 years ago when people would come rushing to contain the fire, now people don’t participate or even attempt to douse forest fires. This is because they feel alienated which is worrying.”