Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Can wildfires be prevented in a world dealing with climate change?

India recorded 82,170 forest fire alerts from April 1 to 14, nearly doubling from 43,031 in the same period in 2020. Forest fires, wildfires and their alerts in the country have gone up sharply in recent times, posing a serious threat to our environment, wildlife and biodiversity

Published: May 24, 2021 02:58:54 PM IST
Updated: May 25, 2021 11:29:35 AM IST

Can wildfires be prevented in a world dealing with climate change?Firefighters and forest officials struggled to control fires in the Similipal Biosphere Reserve, about 200 km away from Bhubaneswar, Odisha, earlier this year 
Image: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With her arms stretched wide, a content smile on her lips and moist eyes, an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer looked up and thanked the pouring skies in March. Her little dance of joy in the rain-washed jungle went viral on social media. There was reason for her to turn emotional.

For weeks, the woman, along with others, had been battling raging forest fires in Similipal’s 2,750 sq km area in Odisha. The wildfire at the Unesco World Heritage biodiversity hotspot and Asia’s largest biosphere was uncontrollable even with 1,000 combatants. The devastation was heartbreaking: The sky had turned reddish orange, filled with rings of bright fire, threatening the biodiversity, wildlife and locals there. The unexpected rain and thunderstorms, understandably, brought relief.

Can wildfires be prevented in a world dealing with climate change?
India recorded 82,170 forest fire alerts from April 1 to 14, nearly doubling from 43,031 in the same period in 2020, according to Global Forest Watch, an open-source monitoring application. Most were concentrated in North and Central India—Odisha, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Telangana. The Forest Survey of India (FSI) also reported a consistent increase in fires in the country: From 8,654 in 2004 to 35,888 in 2017. It found 277,758 forest fire points—20,862 in Assam; 25,995 in Chhattisgarh; 24,422 in Madhya Pradesh; 20,686 in Maharashtra; 32,659 in Mizoram and 26,719 in Odisha.

Among these, those occurring in wet rainforests like those of the Northeast, whose natural evolution does not include regular fires, were most destructive, damaging canopy cover and endemic biodiversity. These were the most difficult to quell. In other types of forests, especially dry and moist deciduous ones, regular ‘cool’ fires are part of millennia-long natural evolution. Fires are needed to thrive; the absence of regular fires can promote accumulated biomass and occasionally intense and long fires that can destroy large swathes of forests.

Earth and its forests have evolved together with fire, says an-over-40-year field study by ecologist Dr Raman Sukumar, honorary professor of the Indian Institute of Science. His research in the Western Ghats shows a path to manage other forest ecosystems throughout Asia and the world. “Fires have profoundly shaped the nature of global ecosystems with perhaps half the land surface being subjected to burning over millions of years. Thus, two relatively distinct biota have evolved—one that is tolerant to fire, or even requires fire to thrive, and the other that is intolerant to burning,” he says.

Natural fires may be caused by high temperature, lack of rain, drought-like situations, the friction of dry bamboos and lightning. According to FSI, a majority of forest fires in the country are also caused by human activities and may be accidental, intentional or due to lack of preparedness. On the ‘interaction’ between humans and fire, Dr Sukumar says, “Humans had mastered the use of fire for not only cooking food but also managing their habitat a long time ago. There is clear evidence of acquisition of ‘fire technology’ by Neanderthals or early modern humans during the Middle Pleistocene about 350,000 years ago.”

But the current situation calls for immediate attention. In the last six months, Uttarakhand in the Himalayas saw nearly 1,000 fires; in early April, 45 forest fires were reported within 24 hours, necessitating a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team to be deployed there. “The Himalayan coniferous forests, wet rainforests of Southern Western Ghats and the Northeast do not benefit from forest fires. In other areas of dry and moist deciduous forests, some indigenous plant seeds have evolved to begin germination after light burning; many birds flock on the edges to eat the roasted insects escaping from the fire and the popcorn of roasted grass seeds,” says Dr Ajay Pillarisett, a retired divisional forest officer.

A one-hectare sal forest has around three tonnes of accumulated dry leaves on its forest floor, a study in Tisiya Forest of Lohardaga, Jharkhand, found. These leaves are a huge quantity of fuel in the forest, making them a potential fire hazard. IFS’s Vikas Ujjawal, who was divisional forest officer (DFO) in Jharkhand’s Lohardaga Forest Division, joined hands with the tribal communities to bring the forest fires under control and create livelihood opportunities for them. He engaged them in ecotourism, beekeeping, making bamboo handicrafts and even as fire watchers. “Officials demarcated the target area using past satellite data. A plan was made to establish a briquetting plant to convert these fallen leaves into briquettes,” says Ujjawal. Briquette, with calorific value comparable to wood, is an eco-friendly artificial wood formed by punching dry powdered leaves and does not have adverse consequences on the forest. “We devised a model where local people are paid Rs 2 per kg for bringing dry leaves from fire-lines and vulnerable forest floors to the processing centre,” he explains. The plant has a capacity to process about a tonne of leaves per day.

Can wildfires be prevented in a world dealing with climate change?Arun Lohra and his family collecting dry leaves from Tisiya Forest

Arun Lohra, 25, from the tribal community at Lohardaga district, however, is not happy with the scheme. He concedes that his community is guilty of causing forest fires. He says they kill animals with giant fires and set dry leaves on fire to collect Madhuca indica flowers, locally known as mahua, used to make toddy, a kind of alcohol. “The machines are not working at the briquetting plant and there is no demand for briquettes in the market… where do we sell them? At first we were excited about this opportunity, but soon realised we aren’t getting anything out of it,” says Lohra, who earns his livelihood from agricultural activities. He emphasises that not everyone from the tribal community is responsible for forest fires. There are people like him who want them to stop. The last fire, he adds, took place 15 days ago and it took two days to bring it under control.

“It has come to our notice that a few issues have come up. The Joint Forest Management Committee and the forest department are working on resolving them. Once the Covid-19 surge subsides, the administration will engage with the local community and provide solutions to these problems,” says Ujjawal, who is posted as DFO in Ranchi since January.

Pine trees in the Himalayan region are highly prone to fires. The pine needles, specifically, are one of the leading causes of forest fires. Delhi-based startup Vasshin Composites is on a mission to bring this under control. Founded in 2019, the company sources pine needles directly from the Himalayan region to create eco-friendly tableware and products, and helps prevent forest fires. Pine needle forests in the Himalayan ecosystem are overpopulated owing to compelling economic reasons and these Pinus roxburghii shed pine needles, which contain volatile compounds, rendering them unfit for consumption and making them highly inflammable as well, explains Bhoomi Thakkar, one of the co-founders.

The first product the startup made from pine needles was headbands; it then pivoted to making over a lakh face shields during the Covid-19 pandemic. The circle headbands were sold to production companies who fit them on shields. Vasshin now wants to expand its production capacity and prevent more forest fires.

“A fire is like Lord Shiva, the creator and destroyer. A fire is a part of the ecosystem functioning… as long as there are large swathes of forests, it creates a mosaic of habitat for plants and animals. In the current scenario where forest patch sizes are small, human use is excessive and inter-patch connectivity is precarious, fires may destroy productivity and connectivity which will affect animal movement and thus their genetic viability,” says ecologist Dr Qamar Qureshi, professor at the Wildlife Institute of India.

Intense hot fires can also result in unexpected consequences such as the establishment of invasive species like lantana which can choke other species and disrupt natural biodiversity. “The invasive shrub Lantana camara has been around in India for about two centuries. It was common in the forests of Western Ghats. Beginning around 2005, however, we noticed a huge increase in lantana in our research plot in Mudumalai. I realised that it had increased not only at this site but also across Mudumalai and the adjoining forests of Bandipur, Wyanad and the Biligiri Rangaswamy hills. This was obviously not a local factor but a regional factor driving the rapid spread of lantana. This region experienced a multi-year decline in rainfall beginning 2000. The following year was very dry. In 2002, we witnessed widespread fires during the dry months followed by an even more catastrophic failure of the monsoon. When the rains returned in subsequent years, we noticed that grasses were suppressed and lantana began to increase exponentially across the region. It was a stochastic combination of drought-fire-drought that spurred this increase,” he adds.

Can wildfires be prevented in a world dealing with climate change?

Uncontrolled forest fires have adverse effects on forest cover, the soil, tree growth, vegetation, and flora and fauna. In 2004, the FSI developed the Forest Fire Alert System to monitor forest fires in real time. Since January 2019, the system has been using satellite information gathered from Nasa and the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Managing a fire is at the heart of our relationship with Earth, as we increasingly navigate a world dealing with climate change. The risk of forest fires is ongoing and continues to threaten our environment. According to reports, forest fire alerts have increased across the country by 125 percent this year. Between November 2019 and January 2020, 1,321 alerts were sent out. This year there were 2,984 alerts, mostly from Uttarakhand, Odisha and Maharashtra. On April 24, forest fires broke out in nearly 70 areas in five districts of Mizoram in the Northeast, a wet rainforest where fires are most destructive. Two Indian Air Force Mi-17V5 helicopters, equipped with Bambi Buckets (used for aerial firefighting), as well as locals helped douse the fires. At least 346 fire incidents were reported from January 2019 to March 2021 in Mizoram.

“Floods and fires have engineered the habitat in Gangetic terai and Brahmaputra flood plains. A combination of these forces created a unique assemblage of flora and fauna, like one-horned rhinoceros, barasingha, Bengal florican, hog deer, buffalo and many more. All these species of conservation concern exist because of flood-fire dynamics which create a shifting mosaic of wet grassland interspersed with forests,” says Dr Qureshi.

In January, a wildfire raged through the Kullu forests in Himachal Pradesh for days and another on the Nagaland-Manipur border required help from the NDRF and the army to control it. In February, Odisha’s Similipal burnt for weeks and in March, nearly a third of Madhya Pradhesh’s Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, known for its Royal Bengal Tiger, was devastated by fire.

“Climate has been the primary control of terrestrial wildfires through production of fuel (plant biomass) and its desiccation (during periods of low humidity and high temperature) for successful burning, irrespective of the source of ignition (lightning or humans). In recent years, we are beginning to witness the influence of increasing temperatures in wildfires sweeping across diverse regions, including North America, Australia, Northern Siberia and perhaps even India, on a more localised scale. The ongoing climate change could be expected to further exacerbate wildfire regimes globally,” explains Dr Sukumar.

“Proximate causes of devastating fires are reduced patch sizes and unsustainable use of forests; long-term changing weather patterns in terms of rainfall intensity, number of rainy days and extreme dry summer will change the forest dynamics and composition. Choices (of how forests should be managed) are difficult and we need a better scientific understanding and management of our natural system,” says Dr Qureshi.

The woman officer in Similipal danced in the rain when another elemental force, water, provided timely succour from a devastating fire. Fire is an uncontrollable force we seek to control. It is in the nature of fire to constantly destroy and invigorate. Fire is man’s most elemental tool to shape our civilisation and Earth in our own mould. The entirety of the ecosystem, biodiversity, forests and weather evolved over millennia, knows what we have forgotten: In the give-and-take of elemental natural processes, we may choose to be the problem or the solution. We may aid or hinder natural processes through better understanding and our own actions. That choice rests in our hands alone.

Sumaira Abdulali is convenor, Awaaz Foundation

(This story appears in the 04 June, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)