- While wildfires are considered destructive that need to be suppressed at all cost, research proves surface fires provide essential ecosystem services and need to be brought back into forest management practices.
- In Indian forests, indigenous tribes like Soligas in Karnataka have traditionally used forest fire as a means for safety and food production until the laws made it a criminal offence.
- About 20 percent of India’s forests are extremely fire-prone to high fire-prone. Indian government acknowledges that not all forest fires are bad but the uncontrollable ones are. It has been trying to adopt the latest technology to prevent forest fires and tackle them.
It’s the forest fire season and the officials at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka have stepped up the ante on fire preparedness. With fire watchers assigned to look out for fires, regular maintenance of fire lines, mobile squads with wireless sets at strategic points, 12 new water tankers, additional 91 kilometres of fire lines, and street plays and awareness programmes for villagers, they are leaving no stone unturned.
The Karnataka Forest Department has additionally deployed drones with sensors to assess forest fires at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and the two adjoining reserves of Nagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve and Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve. The news of the drones has stirred up memories of February 2019 when Bandipur witnessed a devastating wildfire that destroyed 4400 hectares of the reserve.
“We have started using three drones – two by volunteers and one by the department staff – every day for a few hours at vulnerable spots,” conservator of forest and field director, Project Tiger, Bandipur, T. Balachandra told Mongabay-India.
Forest fires are not a new phenomenon in most Indian forests. Renowned ecologist Raman Sukumar of Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said, “Forest fires have been around for a long time, more than 50,000 years. Around the world, almost 50 percent of the land area is shaped by forest fires.”
This is especially true in case of dry deciduous ones like the Bandipur-Mudumalai forests. “These forests are more correctly viewed as savannas, or mixed tree-grass systems, where grass-fuelled fires in the dry season have long been a part of these ecosystems,” said Jayashree Ratnam, who is associate director at the Wildlife Biology and Conservation Programme, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore. Ratnam said that several lines of evidence, paleo-ecological data, the presence of diverse native grazing animals (that feed on the grasses), as well as fire-resistant traits of many plant species in these ecosystems, point to ancient, shared history with fire.
Given this long-standing relationship with forest fires, are such fires justified in the negative light associated with them?
While the one like last year’s Bandipur wildfire can be devastating, scientists and experts in the field believe that controlled burning of forests is scientific and is in fact recommended for the health of the forests.
Aren’t all fires bad fires?
Most forest fires are not naturally occurring and are human-made. While there exists a narrative that humans are part of nature and hence, fires triggered by humans are also natural, such man-made fires are a criminal offence in India under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
History suggests that indigenous tribes or the aboriginals across the world have used fire as a means to shape the landscape and as part of their forest management practices.
In Indian forests, indigenous tribes like Soligas in Karnataka have traditionally used fire as a means for safety, food production and landscape management until the Act made it a criminal offence.
“Setting litter fire (taragu benki in Kannada) in forest patches was a practice Soligas followed till 50-60 years ago. These fires are ground-level fires that go up to two-three feet in height. We had to stop it when the Act came into effect. These fires were lit mostly in the months of January and February when there is still some moisture in the litter,” said Soliga C. Madegowda, senior research associate at ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) and secretary of the Zilla Budakattu Girijana Abhivrudhi Sangha, an organisation that works for the welfare of the tribal people.
Read more: [Commentary] Alternate perspectives on forest fires in India
Decline in forest fires in Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve indicates management effectiveness
That not all forest fires are bad is even acknowledged in India’s State of Forest Report 2019 which states that controlled fire has traditionally been used as a tool of forest management but “uncontrolled fires of anthropogenic origin are a serious concern for the sustainability of forests and their prevention poses a challenge.” It said traditional fire-fighting methods and equipment may not be sufficient to fight the growing number of large forest fires and technology such as satellite remote sensing-based forest fire detection in near real-time is of critical help in controlling forest fires.
The Government of India had even come with a National Action Plan on Forest Fires 2018 for better forest fire management. The plan also aims to reduce the vulnerability of forests against fire hazards across diverse forest ecosystems. According to ISFR 2019, about 20 percent of India’s total forest area (about 141,000 square kilometres), is extremely fire-prone to high fire-prone.
Subhash Ashutosh, who is the director-general of the Forest Survey of India, explained that (uncontrollable) forest fire is a problem in the country. “Given the extent of forests and remoteness of forest areas, taking preventive care of forest fires is a huge task. No effort can be adequate. Use of technology for forest fire detection is making some impact but we have to take it further. For detection, we are quite sufficient but what we need to do is forest fire danger rating system and forest fire early warning system,” Ashutosh told Mongabay-India. These two are different concepts where dynamic weather data is used. “Right now, we are pursuing these two technologies. Advanced countries like Canada and the USA are successfully using these technologies. We hope to bring these systems to India in a few years. We intend to collaborate with Canadian forest service for this purpose because their danger rating system is supposed to be quite robust and advanced,” said Ashutosh.
He explained that under the danger rating system, every forest area in the country will be assigned a “danger rating” every day, sometimes even twice during the day, based on the fire risk zonation taking into account about 8-10 factors like topography, road network, slope, forest types and proximity to water bodies.
“When an area gets a high danger rating, all the authorities in that particular area will be alerted,” Ashutosh said.
An early warning system, which is being primarily based on forest type and weather data, is being developed by the FSI in collaboration with the space application centre and other institutions.
Fire provides many ecosystem services
Not just Soligas, other Adivasi communities also practised forest fires for a range of reasons — from better visibility of the forest that ensured their safety and easy movement, easy collection of non-timber forest produce (NTFP), better food production, grass regeneration for livestock, etc. These fires inadvertently favoured the forest — grass grows faster and better after a fire which becomes food for wild animals. The complete no-fire policy, on the other hand, adversely affected the undergrowth which is fodder to many animal species in the forest. In place of natural fodder grew invasive plant species like Lantana camara that completely changed the forest landscape at many places.
“Periodic ground fires have also been found to bring the parasite load down which, if not done, will lead to an increase in zoonotic diseases. In the absence of fire, grass doesn’t regenerate quickly and this negatively impacts large mammals populations in these forests,” said post-doctoral fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tarsh Thekaekara who has worked in the Bandipur and Mudumalai for over a decade.
If fires are good for forests, what changed?
Things changed dramatically during the British period when the colonial rulers started looking at all fires as bad ones.
Political ecologist Nitin D. Rai of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE) whose research is largely based in Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve, adjacent to Bandipur, that’s home to a large number of Soligas said, “Forest fires were an integral part of the forest management technique. But when the power of managing a forest moved from the hands of indigenous people to the British, they looked at the forest as a commodity. It is thanks to their 150 plus years of mismanagement that these forests turned from open savannas to close canopy forests.”
If fires have always been part of the ecosystem of deciduous forests, how did Bandipur fire turn destructive? To answer that, we need to first understand forest fires better. The naturally occurring biomass in the forest, mostly dry litter and vegetation act as fuel for the fire. Higher the production of biomass, more the potential for fire. “This fuel has to be flammable too,” explained Sukumar of IISc.
“Evergreen forests and tropical wet forests too have biomass but it’s too wet to burn. Similarly, some dry forests have the potential to burn but have less biomass. The best potential for fire is somewhere in between—when it has just enough biomass to cause the right amount of burn,” he said.
Bandipur Tiger Reserve is a dry deciduous forest with an area of 87,400 hectares. Biomass had built up in this forest over a period of time. “A combination of factors, unusually low rainfall during the northeast monsoons, higher than usual temperatures, dry and windy conditions, combined with the heavy fuel load (biomass), resulted in the very intense and large fires (at Bandipur),” said Ratnam.
That’s not to say fires are restricted to dry deciduous forests. Fires have been occurring in India for a really long time. A report on Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India published in June 2018 jointly by the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) and the World Bank says that every year, forest fires occur in around half of the country’s 647 districts and in nearly all the states.
By one estimate, in 2014 alone, nearly 49,000 kilometres square of forests – an area larger than the size of Haryana – were burned. Australia’s raging bushfire that killed around 30 people, destroyed thousands of homes and killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals has had our attention for a while now. The year 2019 also saw hellish fires in Amazon rainforest; California too saw close to 8,000 fires.
Thekaekara said the tradition of burning small patches of forests at the start of summer reduces the biomass load which will prevent large, destructive fires. “Traditional small patch burning burns only about 10 hectares at a time; less than 0.05 percent of the park. It’s still done regularly in grasslands like Kaziranga. In Kaziranga, rhinos are the main target species. They survive only in a healthy grassland habitat which is possible only if burnt regularly and let the grass regenerate,” he said. “It was only in the last decade when satellite images became readily accessible that there has been a complete clampdown on fires. Even after the Wildlife Protection Act, field staff kept up burning through preventive forest fires,” he said.
Read more: Most forest fires in India on account of human activity
But what really bolsters the argument for restarting litter fires in these forests is the proliferation of Lantana which the scientific community believes is one of the negative outcomes of the complete no-fire policy of the forest department.
Incidentally, when the nature of the forest’s understory changes with Lantana replacing grass as the major fuel load for the fire, it has a direct bearing on the behaviour of the forest fires, changing them from fast-moving, relatively lower intensity, ground fires to slower-moving, higher intensity fires that now also scorch a part of the tree canopy, explained Ratnam.
“Whether these systems, which were well adapted to the grass fire regimes, are equally resilient to the Lantana fire regime is a question that we need to urgently address with appropriate research,” she said. In the discussions on how to get rid of Lantana from these landscapes too, fire comes as the solution. “Lantana is resistant to moderate fires, and not much is known about its interaction with fire. To completely eradicate lantana, you possibly need to burn the patches three to four times,” said Thekaekara.
Another main concern that is often raised against fires in the forest is its effect on the flora and fauna. But researchers say that these forests are traditionally fire-adapted and hence, forest fires have little effect on the animals or trees. However, fire ecology is a subject that needs to be studied more seriously before we come up with better fire management practices in our forests. As Sukumar put it succinctly, “There is a grave need to study the subject carefully and develop our knowledge base to come up with the right fire management techniques in dry forests, tropical dry forests and grasslands.”
With inputs from Mayank Aggarwal
Banner image: India is looking to use the latest technology to detect and prevent large scale forest fires. Photo by Madhusudan S.R.