INDIA – Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) researchers have found that India saw the largest area-wise forest fires across a region comprising seven South Asian countries, over a 15-year period between 2003 and 2017.
The study found that most fires in India were surface fires emerging during hot and dry weather conditions in March and April, and the most common cause of fires in South Asia was deforestation surface fires burn down small vegetation, debris and spread rapidly, destroying the forest floor. The study found that fire hotspots are increasing in Bangladesh (34.2 percent) and India (32.2 percent).
An Indian Forest Service official said on condition of anonymity, “The season of forest fire in India is about to begin. This time, there is higher ground load the presence of dried-up grass and leaves, which can easily go up in flames in case of fire.”
According to the latest Forest Survey of India (FSI) report, 36 percent of forests in India are prone to fires, of which 95 percent were caused by anthropogenic activities. The study found that the largest area-wise forest fires in India emerged from Central India, though fires were more frequent in Northeast India due to the shifting of cultivation. The FSI report of 2019 lists out the electric spark, cigarette smoking or naked flame besides natural fire, as some of the common causes for fire in Indian forests.
“The ill-effects of forest burning is directly on the ecology and economy, as there is an imbalance created in the atmospheric chemistry. Due to forest burning, there is an increase in emissions of greenhouse gases,” the study stated.
A team of researchers from ISRO’s Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) conducted the study over an area of 51,23,270 sq km across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Bangladesh from 2003 to 2017. The results were published in Springer Nature in February.
Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, and Meghalaya were ranked at the top among Indian states where the highest number of forest fire incidents were reported during the study period. But the concentration of emerging hotspots was reportedly growing over Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh.
Forest officials blamed human activity as the main cause of most forest fires in India.
Over 15 years, the researchers recorded a total of 5,22,348 fire incidents of varying intensities and different types. Like India, most fires emerged during March and April in the other countries in the study, mainly owing to the region’s hot and dry weather conditions besides the land’s topography, the experts said.
Of the total landmass in South Asia, only 14.7 percent is under forest cover, while agriculture has the largest share at 43 percent. The rest 19.9 percent is a barren land.
According to the NRSC team’s analysis, the maximum number of fire incidents are reported from tropical moist deciduous and tropical dry deciduous forests. “The…common causes for fires in South Asian countries are deforestation, controlled burning, promotion of new flush of grasses, collection of minor forest produce and firewood burning,” the study stated.
Recently, there has been a spate of wildfires in Australia, California, and Brazil. Australia, despite having advanced equipment to tackle fires, could not bring them under control until the maximum damage was already done.
The forest official, explaining the challenges India faces, said, “Tackling and controlling forest fires is extremely difficult as the fire progresses in the direction along with the wind and towards higher altitudes. Besides, with limited access and to carry heavy water extinguishers into forests here, dousing fires often forces forest staffers to risk their lives and get closer to fire. They mostly use hand-held blowers. Besides, limited ground staff makes it more difficult to take timely action, particularly during the peak forest fire season.”
Indicating a direct link between the variation in temperatures and forests coming under fire, the NRSC study explained the maximum fires (9.9 percent) recorded in 2009. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), 2009 was the warmest ever year recorded (till then), when India’s annual mean temperature was 25.6 degrees Celsius. Notably, 2009 was a year that saw a strong influence of El Nino. The scientists observed a similar surge in the forest fire events in 2012 (8.7 percent).