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17th May 2022 (6 Topics)

Why are forest fires in the hills intensifying this summer

Context

Forest fires continue to scorch several hectares of green cover in the Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

  • In April, Himachal reported close to 750 forest fires, while Uttarakhand recorded over 1,500 such incidents.
  • On April 30, Uttarakhand witnessed 51 large fire incidents — the maximum by any Indian state.

About

What causes forest fires?

  • The forest fire season in India lasts between November to June. Several factors like temperatures, precipitation, vegetation, and moisture contribute to the scale and frequency of these fires.
  • According to the Forest Survey of India, nearly 36 per cent of India’s forests are prone to frequent fires.
  • Higher fire incidents are reported in March, April and May due to ample availability of dry biomass (fuel load) following the end of winter and the ongoing summer season.
  • Most forest fires, according to experts, are man-made due to changes in agriculture and unchecked land-use patterns.

Classification of forest fires:

Forest fires are broadly categorised into three categories – ground, surface and crown fire.

  • Fires that burn organic material in the soil are called ground fires, and they burn slowly, under vegetation.
  • Surface fires are caused largely by burning of dry leaves, branches and other materials on the ground.
  • Such fires spread swiftly, as in the case of fires in Himachal.
  • Crown fires burn quickly, from one tree top to another and have huge flames with intense heat. Such fires are rare in India.

Spike in fire incidents in 2022:

  • The FSI data on forest fire points between March 1 and April 30 this year shows a clear spike in incidents coinciding with rising heatwave conditions.
  • The number of forest fire points rose from 8,735 to 42,486 during the four weeks in March.

Vulnerability of forests in Uttarakhand and Himachal:

  • Out of the total forest land in Uttarakhand, 26 per cent consists of pine trees.
    • Dry pine leaves are highly inflammable and significantly increase the fuel load.
    • Officials admit that the situation is alarming because the peak time for forest fire – the third week of May when the temperatures are the highest – is yet to come.
  • In Himachal, of the 196 forest ranges in Himachal Pradesh, 80 are vulnerable to fires.
    • The chir pine forests which make up 15 percent of Himachal’s forests, are most prone to fires.
    • The chir forests are spread over an area of 1258.85 sq km, which is about 3.4 per cent of the total forest area of the state.

Prevention and control:

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change lists the following methods to prevent and control a forest fire:

  • construction of watch towers for early detection;
  • deployment of fire watchers;
  • creation and maintenance of fire lines, besides involvement of local communities
  • Use of remote sensing technology and
  • Moderate Resolution Imagine Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite data for detection of active forest fires is also advised.

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