INDIA – Between October and December, Uttarakhand recorded more forest fires than the four-month period from February in which these blazes usually occur, government data shows. In fact, the number of incidents during the forest fire season—a major part of which coincided with the Covid-19 lockdown—was the lowest in the last 20 years.
As per Forest Department records, there were 185 wildfires from October 1 to December 1, affecting 245 hectares of forests. Over 4,600 trees and 1,600 plant saplings were impacted in these fires which broke out in the hilly areas of Garhwal and Kumaon regions, leading to an estimated loss of Rs 6.9 lakh.
State forest officials called these incidents untimely.
In Uttarakhand, forests fires begin every year from the middle of February—the onset of spring when the trees shed dry leaves and the soil loses moisture due to a rise in temperature. This forest fire season continues usually till mid-June in the summer. Owing to a lack of rain during this time, the ground moisture level remains low and the surface dries up. In hilly areas, the surface gets drier faster than plains due to lower accumulation of rainwater.
The situation improves between the beginning of July and the end of September when the monsoon maintains moisture in the atmosphere as well as soil. This is why there are fewer forest fires during this time.
“But no rain was recorded in the state after September 20. There was light rain for a few days only in November. Following a prolonged dry spell of 45 to 60 days, tree leaves dried up early this year. When the movement of humans started in the forest to collect wood for themselves and fodder for livestock, and they lit waste as well as bonfires in the fields. These triggered fires in forests,” said a forest official.
“The number of fire incidents in forests from February to June this year was almost 10 per cent of the average number of incidents that occurred in the past 20 years. In October and November, only a negligible number of forest fires had occurred in past years, but there was a sharp rise in these months this year after the unlock process. It leads to the conclusion that such incidents occurred due to carelessness of humans who moved out after the unlock process,” said Man Singh, Chief Conservator of Forests, Forest Fire & Disaster Management.
Uttarakhand has around 38,000 sq. km of forests—almost 71 per cent of its geographical area.
During the forest fire season, there were 135 incidents which affected 172 hectares of jungles.
The forest area affected in 2019 was 2,981 hectares. The corresponding figure was 4,480 hectares in 2018, 1,228 hectares in 2017, 4,433 hectares in 2016 and 701 hectares in 2015.