As per the latest state of forests report of the Forest Survey of India the actual forest cover of India is 19.27% of the geographic area, corresponding to 63.3 million ha. Only 38 million ha of forests are well stocked (crown density above 40%). This resource has to meet the demand of a population of 950 million people and around 450 million cattle. As such, the country has to meet the needs of 16% of the world’s population from 1% of the world forest resources. The same forest has also to cater for the 19% of the world cattle population.
The forests of the country are, therefore, under tremendous pressure. Forest fires are a major cause of degradation of India’s forests. While statistical data on fire loss is weak, it is estimated that the proportion of forest areas prone to forest fires annually ranges from 33% in some states to over 90% in other. About 90% of the forest fires in India are created by humans. The normal fire season in India is from the month of February to mid-June. India witnessed the most severe forest fires in the recent time during the summer of 1995 in the hills of Uttar Pradesh & Himachal Pradesh. The fires were very severe and attracted the attention of the whole nation. An area of 677,700 ha was affected by fires.
The Forest Survey of India, data on forest fire attribute around 50% of the forest areas as fire prone. This does not mean that country’s 50% area is affected by fires annually. Very heavy, heavy and frequent forest fire damages are noticed only over 0.8%, 0.14% and 5.16% of the forest areas respectively. Thus, only 6.17% of the forests are prone to severe fire damage. In the absolute term, out of the 63 million ha. of forests, an area of around 3.73 million ha can be presumed to be affected by fires annually.
Fig.1. A large fraction of India’s deciduous and semi-deciduous forests is characterized by open and frequently burned stands. To reduce water stress the deciduous trees shed their leaves during the dry season. These fuels, together with the grass layer, allow the development of low- and medium-intensity surface fires almost every year. Many open forests are even affected by fire twice or three times per year.
Fig.2. Medium-intensity surface fire in an open Southern Tropical Dry Deciduous forest near Chandrapur, Maharashtra State, India.
Fig.3. A large fraction of rural people in India are living in forest lands or are dependent on forest use.
Fig.4. Forest grazing is an important source of income. Burning of forest understorey at the peak of the dry season helps to stimulate grass growth before the monsoon rains break.
Fig.5. Collecting non-wood forest products in the dry deciduous is often associated with burning: The fire removes the leaf litter layer, and freshly fallen fruits become visible and easier to collect.
Fig.6. Modern forest fire control in India involves the use of adapted technologies, including fire-proof safety clothing.
Fig.7/8. Erosion is one of the severe consequences of fire-induced litter depletion. The photographs show the effect of erosion in teak (Tectona grandis) plantations which are affected by annual surface fires.
Fig.9. Frequent surface fire, cattle grazing and trampling impacts characterize the mountain forests in the Himalayan foothills and mountains of Northern India. This site in Uttar Pradesh has been repeatedly burned and is subjected to severe erosion damage. The old generation of pine trees (Pinus roxburghii) is fire tolerant but is lacking regeneration and a higher mixed proportion of fire-susceptible broadleaved trees, e.g. oaks (Quercus spp.). In the long run the multiple stresses by fire, cattle, and fuelwood cutting will lead to the complete destruction of these forests.
Fig.10. Public education and information on forest fire in India.