Fire at Vattavada, Munnar. Photo by Joby George.

All fires are man made

Forest Survey of India (FSI) has identified 1719 forest fire points in Kerala. Karnataka has 7,352 fire points, many of which share boundaries with Kerala.

FSI also states Kerala has 22 highly fire prone areas and around 460 fire prone forest areas in the state.

Environment activists and forest officials firmly state that all forest fires in Kerala are man-made. “Forest fires are not natural. People set fire intentionally or accidentally. A minor clash with a forest officer for not allowing them to walk through the jungle, locals who were charged with a case for breaching wildlife laws — can be the reasons for people’s rivalry and they set fire. There are even cases where people set fire for fun,” Sajan said.

Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi president N. Badusha recalls that many decades ago tribal people used to set fire in forest for the bushy growth of grass after monsoon, and for easy collection of forest resources, among other reasons.

“But now they are aware of the hazards and they don’t do it. On the other side, there are a lot of people who burn forest intentionally.”

Badusha points out that human-animal conflict is a major reason for people to set forests ablaze. “In order to get rid of wild animals entering human habitation they do it, but they don’t realize that setting fire would force wild animals to enter their farmlands as their habitats are being destroyed. In the case of recent fire, a group of people was protesting to capture a problem elephant, Vadakkanad Komban. One of the leaders of the group publicly announced in a meeting that they would burn the forest if the elephant was not captured. Third day after the speech forest was set ablaze,” he added.

He also said that a small irresponsible act by people living around the forest can also cause a major fire. “A carelessly thrown cigarette is enough to burn hundreds of hectares,” he added.

Since people own farmlands close to the forest they use fire to get rid of wild animals, but in summer these fires get easily spread into forest unknowingly.

The aftermath of the massive fire at Vattavada, Munnar. Photo by Joby George.

Debate on whether fires are a boon or bane

Recently, six scientists Abi Tamim Vanak, Ankila Hiremath and Nitin Rai of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE); Raman Sukumar of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (CES-IISc); Jayashree Ratnam of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS); and Tarsh Thekaekara of The Shola Trust, had written an open letter saying controlled fires are necessary for forest management.

Tarsh Thekaekara said in an interview with Mongabay-India, “Uncontrolled high-intensity fires are highly detrimental, there is no doubt. The way to stop this is through low intensity controlled burns.”

He also states that those who set fire in the forest are not always ‘miscreants’. “The idea of ‘miscreants’ is problematic. Villagers have been burning forests for centuries, they became miscreants when colonial laws were put in place. Only today and in India, they are called miscreants. In Australia and Africa people who burn are called conservationists! In Kaziranga also, even today, the Forest dept themselves burn the entire park in small sections as a part of habitat management,” he added.

The scientists have claimed that fires help the forest to revive dormant seeds, suppress invasive species, weeds and also help in the elimination of hemiparasites that cause destruction of adult trees.

On the other hand, environmental activists oppose this viewpoint. They claim that a destroyed forest is a perfect habitat for invasive flora. Badusha said that there are many examples to prove that forests are not regenerated even 25 years after a major fire.

“Four years back, a major fire broke out near Thirunelli in Wayanad. There was even a crime branch inquiry after the fire. In that area still, we can see burned trees and plants. No regeneration happened even after four monsoons,” he said while adding that the area is full of invasive plants and trees.

Tarsh Thekaekara has a different opinion. “Grasses will come back after one rain, and this is vital for herbivores. Trees may take one or two years at the most. Parasites and ticks will be much reduced. Dead biomass will be cleared allowing for new regeneration.”

N.T. Sajan also confirms that burnt forest turn into green after one or two monsoons.

A smoky landscape after the fire. Vattavada, Munnar. Photo by Joby George.

Tarsh Thekaekara counters the opinion that fire promotes invasive species. “We don’t know enough as of now – there are been very limited research about invasive and fires. Adivasis say lantana will be controlled by fire, but since it is a new plant, it is hard to say.”

Anitha S, an ecologist and environmental activist who coordinates the Tree Walk at Thiruvananthapuram, finds fires a curse on the environment. “In a fire, soil loses its nutrients, that it will take years to restore. Subsoil layers can be destroyed in fires. Habitat of  reptiles, birds and animals  are destroyed brutally in a fire.”

Once a forest area been burnt the water sources inside the forest can easily dry up, she added.

In Munnar, environmentalists claim that people who had set fire in Vattavada use water from Pambadum shola, the smallest national park in Kerala; they don’t realize that the national park can easily vanish in a major fire.

Badusha said, “The sight of dead animals and birds, their partially burnt carcass, is unbearable.” He recalled how a mother jackal and her three kids were found burnt in the Thirunelli fire. “Animals, including endangered species birds and reptiles lose their habitat, by an irresponsible act of humans,” he added.

Tarsh Thekaekara is of the opinion that all habitats except rain forests are adapted to fire. “All the areas burnt in Bandipur in March have lush green grass after this one rain. Are grasses not good for wildlife and do we only want trees? Slightly drier forests (many parts of Wayanad) are well adapted to fire,” he added.

Even few Adivasi (tribal) leaders who sought anonymity told Mongabay-India that fire is an inevitable tool in forest management. “We had used fires earlier to get lush green forest. The newly sprouted grass and plants help wild animals as well as our domestic animals. Fire also cleans and purifies forests,” one of the tribal leaders said.

But they stopped setting fire in their environment as the forest department has totally banned it.

However, the scientists do agree to the facts that uncontrolled and devastating fires have a significant negative effect. They also say that evergreen and rainforests are not adapted to fire. At the same time, they stress the positive impact of fire in dry and deciduous forest ecosystems. They say preventing huge fires with controlled fires is an ideal solution.

National Forest Commission in 2006 had even suggested that forest fires should be considered as state disasters. There is also a call for long-term policy for fire management.

Article published by Sandhya Sekar
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