Forest fires in India

11 September 2020

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INDIA – Global heating is contributing to forest fires, and those fires are stoking further heating: a deadly cycle. What can we learn from India’s forest survey?

Fire is a good servant but a bad master, as the saying goes. The same is true for forest fires. Controlled forest fires have been essential for forest growth, but uncontrolled forest fire can engulf and destroy healthy, thick forest cover in no time.

Various anthropogenic factors combine to cause uncontrolled fires. Fires of varying intensity and extent can affect thousands of hectares of forest every year, seriously influencing factor on nutrient cycling and functioning of ecosystem. Some forest ecosystems have evolved in response to frequent fires from natural causes, but most are susceptible to the damaging effects of wildfire.

Each year millions of hectares of the world’s forests are lost by fire, resulting in economic losses, environmental damage, and the loss of human life as well as wild flora and fauna. The recent Australian bushfires in 2019 should have pushed India to better prepare. 


Uncontrollable fires have devastated many parts of India over the past decade, causing severe damage to forest ecosystems. This includes the release of carbon locked in the biomass. 

The Forest Survey of India released a report last year, analysing areas in India prone to fires. Out of the total 7,12,249 square km of forest cover, 1,52,421 square km (21.40 percent) is either highly or extremely fire prone. The forests of Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh are most vulnerable. 

Forest Survey of India (FSI) has been conducting field investigations in different parts of the country since 1965, keeping records of forest fires in sample plots and developing a forest fire alert system, which has undergone significant improvements and automations in recent years.

29,547 fires were detected in 2019 using MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro-radiometer) sensor data, according to the survey. 

Interactions between the climate and forest fires create a feedback system that can help to determine fire patterns and intensity. In turn, fire influences the climate system by releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Changing weather patterns are also contributing to the current increase cases in forest fires. 


Global heating is contributing to forest fires, and those fires are stoking further heating: a deadly cycle. Observations over the past twenty years show that the increasing intensity and spread of forest fires in Asia were largely related to rises in temperature and declines in precipitation, in combination with an increasing intensity of land use (IPCC 2007).

Globally, the length of fire season increased by nearly 19 percent between 1979 and 2013. In India, record breaking temperatures have driven an early start to forest fire season, with most forest fires reported during summer season. Forest fires greatly increased in number and extent between 2014 and 2018. 

2015 (+0.42°C), 2016 (+0.71°C), and 2017 (+0.53°C) were the warmest years on record.  Accordingly, forest forest too have increased in scale over the same period: 2015 saw 24,817 cases, 2016 saw 35,888 cases, and 2017 had 37,059 cases.  

Climate change is expected to alter forest boundaries and types, as well as impact productivity, species population and migration, the occurrence of pests and diseases and the capacity for forests to regenerate.

It is critical to monitor and understand such fires using satellite data so that we can successfully manage them in a warmer world. Understanding both the immediate and long-term effects of fire requires long-term global datasets that follow fires from their detection and that accurately map the scale of the burned area.

This Author 

Abhishek Srivastava is based at the department of environment science, HNB Garhwal Central University, Srinagar-Garhwal, Uttarakhand, India. His research interests include behavioral and wildlife ecology.

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