One year of Similipal forest fire: The hits and misses

More than 500 fire blowers have been supplied to the field staff for immediate tackling of fire points. Photo by the Forest Department.
  • In 2021, forest fires lasted for over 10 days in the Similipal region, affecting close to one-third area.
  • Dry climatic conditions and soaring temperatures often fuel these forest fires.
  • A year later, the administration has initiated several new preventive and mitigation measures to tackle forest fires.

The Similipal biosphere reserve in the Mayurbhanj district in Odisha was ravaged by devastating forest fires last year in February-March, affecting close to one-third of the area of the Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR). The fire lasted around 10 days and had a severe impact on the biodiversity of the area. It was the second major fire incident in STR after 2015, when massive destruction of the flora and the fauna was reported.

Similipal, Asia’s second-largest biosphere reserve, which got its status in 1994, is home to the royal Bengal tiger, Asiatic elephant, and a variety of endangered flora. Though the region has a history of forest fires, the 2021 incident fuelled a discourse in the state and led to several online campaigns like ‘Save Similipal,’ which prompted the government to address the neglected issue.

A year later, Similipal is still burning, but the forest fires are not major this time around. Till the time of filing this report, five fire points in the northern division and 15 points in the southern division of the Similipal Tiger Reserve had been identified.

The 2021 fire and its aftermath

On March 1 last year, almost a week after the forest fires were reported, Akshita M Bhanj Deo, a member of the royal family of Mayurbhanj and a young entrepreneur, tweeted about it on social media and tried to draw the attention of the public and the administration. Prior to her tweet, the news was covered by the regional media but had failed to make any impact. It was her tweet that led to a chain reaction, drawing the attention of the bigwigs in the political fraternity including the then Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, who sought a report from the state administration.

The Odisha Government sprang into action and in what many environmentalists feel was a damage-control exercise, announced that the forest fires had been controlled.

A screen grab of the Similipal forest fire in 2021. Photo by special arrangement.
A screen grab of the Similipal forest fire in 2021. Photo by special arrangement.

On March 5, two days after the Chief Minister’s office released a statement that the forest fires had been controlled, satellite images from NASA disputed the state’s claim and showed that fires were still raging in the Similipal region. A temporary relief came almost a week later, when unseasonal rains cooled the region down.

“One thing which is strikingly clear is that last year, a lot of comments were made on how the situation was not that bad and these were just regular fires. But now, if you see the amount of support – both in terms of infrastructure and re-organisation of the administration, one can understand how bad the situation had gotten in 2021. In the last year, we have seen that the infrastructure has greatly improved and the management and administration of the forest department have been put under scanner by increasing the accountability and transparency,” shared Akshita.

Though the cause of the fire is still not confirmed, officials say it might have been a human-made disaster that got impetus due to the dry spell which was going on at that time. Often, Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) collectors set fire to the accumulated dry leaves to collect the local mahua flowers and make a passageway through the forest. Poaching is another factor in which the hunters set fire to divert the animals.

Understanding Similipal’s micro-climate

A forest fire is generally fuelled by two factors – low humidity and soaring temperature. In Odisha, the dry season (no or less rainfall) begins in December and lasts till February, making these months, the most crucial for the forest. This reduces the humidity in the area and as the temperature begins to soar from February end and peaks in March-April, the conditions become favourable for forest fires. Similipal, a deciduous forest, sheds dry leaves around the same time, making the region more vulnerable to forest fires.

In Odisha, there is usually no rainfall activity in the months of January and February. However, the Similipal region in the northern part of the state gets occasional showers from the western disturbances which help in maintaining the humidity. Last year, there was hardly any rainfall in January-February, which worsened the forest fires. On the contrary, this year the rainfall during the period has been above normal.

“Odisha has seen a shift in the rainfall activity last year as a result of climate change. Last year, there was almost no rainfall in the major monsoon months of July and August. Instead, the state had witnessed winter rainfall, which is unique. In December, the state got 634 percent excess rainfall. This year, the months of January and February have witnessed 260 percent and 100 percent more rainfall, (respectively) than normal,” Uma Shankar Das, a meteorologist told Mongabay India.

These fresh spells this year have regulated the humidity levels and helped in preventing any major forest fire incident in Similipal so far. In the coming months too, the temperature is expected to remain below normal.

A changed approach

The forest fire incident in 2021 had raised many eyebrows, prompting the administration to be better prepared this year. Officials say, this time, the administration is looking at forest fire as a collective responsibility and all the line departments including forest, fire personnel, and district administration have been asked to monitor the situation closely and share updates.

Preventive measures have long been a part of the forest department’s approach to tackling forest fires. One of the interventions includes mapping the region into smaller ranges and studying its historical data to ascertain the at-risk areas. The fire map then becomes the basis of the mitigation strategy and the resources are mobilised accordingly. Another intervention includes generating awareness among the local communities, who reside in and around the Similipal forest reserve. There are around 45 villages inside Similipal reserve and hundreds in the periphery, making the residents the first responders in case of a crisis.

This year, in addition to the mapping and awareness, infrastructure has been boosted. More than 500 fire blowers have been engaged to immediately extinguish fire points. The forest department has engaged 320 fire watchers for prevention and management, besides the regular 720 ‘protection assistants.’ A release shared by the forest department also mentions that 130 vulnerable villages have been identified and subjected to intense training programmes. Drones with pre-recorded messages are being used for both surveillance and awareness generation.

The forest and other allied departments have initiated awareness campaigns in villages in the core and periphery of Similipal Tiger Reserve. Photo by the Forest Department.
The forest and other allied departments have initiated awareness campaigns in villages in the core and periphery of Similipal Tiger Reserve. Photo by the Forest Department.

“We have a robust plan and fully-prepared fire team at work. We have also set up a 24×7 control room for effective communication. So far, no major fire has been reported. The next month is also crucial and we have placed our staff at strategic locations. We are hopeful of tackling any situation,” says M Yogajayanand, Regional Chief Conservator of Forest, STR Range.

Local communities to the rescue

The inhabitants of the Similipal reserve include the people from the indigenous communities including those from the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) like the Mankdia tribe. The forest is culturally linked to these communities, who often fight the sand and timber mafia to protect the forest. There are several instances of women armed with sticks and stones guarding the forests from the illegal cutting of trees.

These communities have their own set of rules, often unwritten, which are considered more stringent than the rules and regulations set by the government. For instance, in some villages, a resident is bound to raise an alarm immediately, if he locates a fire point. Once the alarm is raised, it is mandatory for all the community members, barring the elderly and sick women, to reach the spot and tackle the fire. Anyone who fails to do so without any valid reason is subjected to a fine which can go up to 5,000 rupees.

Another rule states that none of the village residents shall carry a matchbox or any inflammable substances into the forest during the dry spell. Anyone found with the restricted items will be fined. The rules and regulations are usually set by the village committee members, and vary from village to village.

Even if the fire is lit to clear the accumulated dry leaves or for protection, the unwritten rule suggests that it should be a ground fire and not be more than three to four feet high.

Challenges to be addressed

Though the administration has listed a series of precautionary steps taken to ward off any chance of a major disaster this time, experts say there is a huge gap in planning and implementation. Vasundhara, an NGO working in and around Similipal region, has found out that there are still several villages that the forest and its allied department have not reached.

“Similipal is not a small forest. It is almost impossible for the administration to single-handedly control a fire in case of any eventuality. So, the administration needs to involve the local communities. My staff on the ground has been reporting that many villages have not been approached yet though usually, the awareness generation should happen in the month of December,” says Y Giri Rao of Vasundhara.

An independent survey carried out last year shows less instances of forest fires near villages with CFR or some kind of ownership rights. Photo by Giri Rao.
An independent survey carried out last year shows less instances of forest fires near villages with Community Forest Rights or some kind of ownership rights. Photo by Y Giri Rao.

An independent survey carried out by his team has revealed that the instances of forest fires are much less in areas where the villages have got the Community Forest Rights than in the area where the villagers have not been given any kind of ownership. “Even if there are instances of forest fire, the local communities have been able to tackle it within two to four hours, while the administration would take at least double the time,” he said.

Akshita M Bhanj Deo, who has now collaborated with several organisations and was involved in discussions with the administration, feels there needs to be more innovative thinking for the overall development of the Similipal region. “Odisha is not part of any national conversation on conservation. One year after the forest fires, we still didn’t have any independent report telling us why the fire started, and what procedure was followed. This should be addressed. We need to understand that the communities depend on the forest for livelihood; so, there needs to be more attention to livelihood, skill, and capacity-building. The indigenous communities are dependent on forest produce and simply stopping them is no solution,” she explained.

Read more: Most forest fires in India on account of human activity

Banner image: More than 500 fire blowers have been supplied to the field staff for immediate tackling of fire points. Photo by the Forest Department.

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