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Why are forest fires in the hills intensifying this summer

  • Published
    17th May, 2022

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.

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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