Forest fires: causes, types and management of their control

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The most common hazard in forests is fire. Forest fires are as old as the forests themselves. Wildfires pose a threat to the entire fauna and flora regime, severely disrupting the biodiversity, ecology and environment of an area. During the summer, the forests are littered with dry, senescent leaves and twigs, which can ignite at the slightest spark. According to Forest Survey of India, about 50% of the forest area is prone to fires. Very significant and frequent forest fire damage is observed on 0.87%, 0.14% and 5.16% of forest areas. Forest fires cause imbalances in nature and endanger biodiversity by reducing the fauna and flora richness. Traditional methods of fire prevention are not proving effective and it is now essential to raise public awareness about this, especially people who live near or in forest areas. In the UT of Jammu and Kashmir, the forests of both regions are equally vulnerable to fires, especially during hot summers in the tropical and subtropical parts of Jammu region and during long dry spells in autumn in the Kashmir region, especially coniferous forests which are more susceptible due to resin content.

Causes of forest fires

The causes of wildfires can be divided into two broad categories: environmental (which are out of control) and human-related (which are controllable).

Environment : Many forest fires have natural causes such as lightning which sets trees on fire. However, rain extinguishes these fires without causing much damage. High atmospheric temperatures and dryness (low humidity) provide favorable circumstances for starting a fire. Environmental causes are largely related to climatic conditions such as temperature, wind speed and direction, soil and atmospheric moisture levels, and duration of drought periods. Other natural causes are friction from swaying bamboo trees due to high wind speeds and rolling stones which cause sparks to start fires in the highly flammable leaf litter on the forest floor.

Related to human: A fire occurs when a source of fire such as an open flame, cigarette, electric spark or any ignition source comes into contact with a flammable material. Human-related causes result from human activities. These may or may not be intentional, for example herders and gatherers of various forest products lighting small fires to obtain good pasture grass as well as to facilitate the collection of minor forest products. The centuries-old practice of shifting cultivation (especially in the North Eastern region of India and parts of the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh), the use of fire by villagers to ward off wild animals , fires intentionally set by people living around forests for cooking, warmth and recreation are the main causes of forest fires.

The causes of forest fires are increasing rapidly. The problem has been accentuated by the growth of the human and cattle population. People are increasingly entering the forests to graze livestock, collect firewood, timber and other minor forest products. It is estimated that more than 90% of forest fires in India are human-caused.

Classification of forest fires

· Natural fires

· Accidental fires

· Deliberate fires

Based on the location of their action

· creeping fire

· ground fire

· Surface fire

· crown fire

Crawling Fire: A creeping fire is a type of forest fire that spreads slowly over the ground with low flame. It occurs in forests with no ground cover/undergrowth, usually covered with a layer of dry leaves.

Ground fire: Ground fire is a type of forest fire that burns only the ground cover, that is, the carpet of herbaceous plants and low shrubs that covers the ground. It occurs in deodar forests in the form of residue disposal.

Surface fire: – A forest fire that burns not only the ground cover but also the undergrowth is called a surface fire. Most plain fires are surface fires.

Crown Fire: The other type of wildfire is a crown fire in which the tops of trees and shrubs burn, often fueled by a surface fire. A crown fire is particularly dangerous in a coniferous forest because the resinous material of these trees is highly flammable in nature. On hill slopes, if the fire starts downhill, it spreads quickly because hot air adjacent to a slope tends to move up the slope spreading the flames with it. If the fire starts upwards, it is less likely to spread downwards.

Effects or negative impact of forest fires

Forest fires cause loss of valuable timber resources, degradation of watersheds, loss of biodiversity and extinction of plants and animals, loss of wildlife habitat and depletion of wildlife, loss natural regeneration and reduction of forest cover, global warming, loss of carbon sinks and increase in the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere, change in the microclimate of the region with unhealthy living conditions, soil erosion affecting soil productivity and production, ozone layer depletion, health problems resulting in diseases , loss of livelihoods for tribal people and the rural poor, as an estimated 300 million people are directly dependent on the collection of non-timber forest products from forest areas for their livelihoods.

Forest fire management and suggested strategies

The incidence of forest fires in the country is increasing and more and more areas are affected each year. The technical resources needed to support a systematic forest fire management program are absolutely necessary. Important elements of wildfire management like strategic fire centers, coordination between ministries, financing, human resource development, fire research, fire management and extension programs are urgently needed. .

Given the seriousness of the problem, major improvements to the forest fire management strategy are needed.

It is necessary to have a well-coordinated and integrated fire management program that includes the following elements:

(1) Prevention of human-caused fires through education and environmental modification. It will include silvicultural activities, engineering work, people involvement, education and enforcement. It is proposed to give more importance to people’s participation through joint forest fire management for fire prevention.

(2) Removing surface litter, pine needles, dry leaves frequently from the ground which quickly spread fire once ignited.

(3) Setting up watchtowers to detect fires in remote areas so that staff are alerted well in time.

(4) Unnecessary restriction of movement of people inside forests, especially during the dry season.

(5) Sensitization of nomads not to carry fire-causing substances inside the forests and to ensure that the fire lit for coking, repelling wild animals, etc. is completely off.

(6) Creation of fire lines inside forests to control the spread of fire.

(7) Use of modern fire extinguishing tools by staff to control forest fires in inaccessible areas where it is very difficult to transport water.

(8) Staff training in conjunction with fire and emergency service, disaster management, etc. to fight forest fires to ensure as little damage as possible.

(9) Establishment of ponds, water harvesting structures in fire prone forests to store rainwater to extinguish fires.

(10) Establishment of special forest fire control rooms with trained and well-equipped personnel for rapid action and coordination.

(11) Rapid detection of fires through a well-coordinated network of observation points, effective ground patrols and communication networks. Remote sensing technology should be given due consideration in fire detection. For successful fire management and administration, a National Fire Risk Rating System (NFDRS) and fire forecasting system must be developed

(12) Particular attention should be paid to research, training and development.

Preventive measures

· Goodwill of the local population through their logistical support to field staff to timely report fires and assist staff in extinguishing them.

· Prohibition of collection of certain minor forest products during summer and periods of drought.

· Action against breaches of duty to staff as well as reward for continued work in fire prevention.

· Legislative measures as per Forest Protection Act, Indian Forest Act, etc.

· Putting in place of notices prohibiting the lighting, keeping and carrying of fire in forest areas during the fire season. Filing of FIRs against culprits convicted of willfully burning forests and strict action in accordance with the provisions of Indian Forest Act 1927 etc.

· Educating people about the do’s and don’ts inside forests to prevent forest fires

· Organization, training and secondment of personnel for the firefighting activity.

· Risk reduction: a) Clearing campsites and area along paths and roads, b) Early burning, c) Clearing fire lines.

Modern methods of fighting forest fires used today

· GIS-based fire management system to identify forest fire prone areas and develop forest fire fighting strategies in advance.

· Provision of wireless sets to personnel for effective communication and coordination among field personnel for rapid response and action.

· Construction of fire watchtowers for remote fire detection as well as vigilance.

· Provide clothing, shoes, etc. fire resistant to personnel.

· Provide modern firefighting equipment to staff for best results.

· Creation of fire lines in forests to minimize damage and spread of fires.

· Conduct firefighting research, training and publicity to develop new strategies.

· Establishment of fire control rooms for rapid deployment of personnel to the fire site.

· Sensitization of nomads on their duties and responsibilities in the prevention of forest fires during nomadic migration.

“Trees are poems that the earth writes on the sky. When we cut them down and turn them into paper, we can register our emptiness”…. Khalil Jibran

(The author is the Regional Director of Social Forestry in Kashmir. Email: [email protected])


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