Was the inferno that ravaged hectares of lush green forest and fauna started intentionally or was it stoked by callousness? As the smoky haze clears over the Himalayan range and embers die out, debate rages on as to the cause of the fire and toll of the tragedy. But there is no denying the fact that one way or other Mother Nature has once again been made to pay a huge price for human folly, writes Mugdha Singh
No less than 1,900 hectares of forest area has been affected and wildlife could have severely suffered too in the latest and biggest Uttarakhand forest fire of 2016, says the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Further the MoEF in an affidavit to the Uttarakhand High Court on 9th May has mentioned that a total of 922 incidents of forest fires had occurred in Uttarakhand, destroying 1890.79 hectares till April 29 this year. The fires had resulted in losses to the tune of Rs 18,01,695.
Mukteshwar forest considered one of the best patches of forest in the western Himalayas has lost a huge chunk in the fire.
The fires have hit ecology hard - losses like carbon soaking capability, loss of soil moisture, soil clasping ability and nutrients due to the forest fire are difficult to inveterate.
As the Government, environmentalists and experts try to comprehend the loss and present differing views on the environmental disaster fingers are being pointed at timber mafia and also the villagers for purposefully or unknowingly starting the fire. Weather is also being eyed suspiciously as many believe that rising temperature and diminishing rainfall could have made the forests of ‘Chir’ or pine quite vulnerable to fire. The State Government and districts’ administrations are also facing flak for unpreparedness and delayed reaction to the forests turning into a hell of fire. Government officials though claim that measures had been taken to avert such incidents of fire.
Himalyan region had experienced natural disasters like earthquake and floods in the recent past which led to the loss of biodiversity in many regions and this forest fire just compounded the loss.
According to data from the Ministry of Environment, a total of 18,451 incidents of forest fires were reported from across the country in 2013, compared with 19,054 in 2014 and 15,937 in 2015. This year forest fire incidents have seen a jump with more than 20,500 cases being reported from across the country till April. No one wants to hazard a guess what the data would be before summer 2016 has its say.
Unfortunately, the social media which goes into a tizzy over trending hashtags was disappointing in its reaction to the Uttarakhand fires. With not much uproar on social media, the concerned authorities reacted late.
The spark that turned into Inferno
Forest fires are not new; this one is certainly not the biggest fire that the Himalyan range ever saw. Bikram Grewal, an environmentalist and eminent bird watcher explains how this fire becomes more significant and damaging than the previous ones. Talking to Policy Pulse, he says “The entire fire-period was breeding season of animals and they burned alive in their habitat.”
Talking about the severity of the fire Bikram said, “Along with the pine trees of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, lakhs of organisms burned and became a part of the earth. There are small insects, reptiles that cannot move, birds’ chicks and egg and young mammals. The fire probably began in the month of February and it lasted this long.”
On the probable cause behind the forest fire, Bikram said, “The ravage is not natural. It’s not unintentional too. I have seen that sometimes villagers put the fire on the grass for better produce in next season but that fire does not burn down the hectares and hectares of forest. However such ‘Jhum’ cultivation fire by farmers also causes considerable damage.”
“The fire turned into jungle fire – davagni because someone deliberately put the fire which went out of control and by the time the authorities took notice, it had already destroyed hundreds of years old forests. The fire started from Uttarakhand where two political parties are too busy trying to prove themselves clean and in majority to spare time to environment, human lives, and wildlife” Bikram added.
Bikram further shared another data, “In official records one might see that forest cover is about 21 percent but the fact is we have much less forest cover and this forest fire reduced another 2-3 percent.”
Dr Ashok Kumar Sinha, an environmentalist and forest expert said that actual forest cover in India is not more than 17 percent. “To measure the forest cover, one must measure only canopies of the large trees. Occasional presence of trees or broken canopy cover cannot be measured as forest cover.”
“India is one of the 12 mega bio-diverse regions of the world. The Himalayas are amongst the 32 biodiversity hotspots on earth which conserve and protect a wide range of species. In this fire the estimation of species loss cannot be ascertained but if we assume that each hectare has as few as five species including animals, insect and microbes then imaginethe toll when 3000 hectares are razed,” remarked Dr Sinha.
NVK Ashraf, Senior Director and Chief Veterinarian Wildlife Trust of India, shared that forest fires are not uncommon and it is an annual feature in all dry deciduous forests and at times even in moist-deciduous forests. “Drier the forests, greater the possibility,” says Ashraf.
Talking about the cause of fire, Ashraf said, “Most of the fires these days are man-made, not necessarily an act of deliberately setting fire, but accidental. On a windy day, small sparks can cause fire. The spark can emanate from cigarettes, Choolas or hearths etc. The wind and the fallen dry leaves assist the spread of fire.”
“During fires animals move out quickly but reptiles would be the most directly affected especially when the spread is rapid,” he added.
Talking about the after effects Ashraf said, “Species like elephants that move long distances can come to crop-fields for crop raiding and that would be the beginning of another human-wildlife conflict. Others get affected indirectly due to habitat loss.”
Ravi Singh, environment crusader who has collected the information of Uttarakhand fire from different sources says, “The reason of the rapid fire spread is the leaf litter, which is natural in forests. The spread was natural but the spark was man-made; someone set a spark. Even in garden areas where one can see lots of leaf litter especially during fall season all it takes is a single beedi – country made cigarette, to ignite the fire.,”
Ashutosh Singh, Researcher from Wildlife Institute of India who is working in the Himalayan range said, “Fire has long been an integral part of the forest environment which can be natural as well as caused by humans. The major cause of forest fires may be the poor rainfall, low moisture, warm temperature and dryness.”
“Fire also plays an important role in forest ecosystem dynamics in two ways, which may be either beneficial or detrimental. Burning of forest understory at the peak of the dry season helps to stimulate grass growth before the monsoon rains break. The fire also removes the leaf litter layer due to which freshly fallen fruits become visible and easier to collect. But fire can be deadly, destroying wildlife habitat and timber, polluting the air and causing loss to human and animals. Forest fires are also responsible for imbalances in nature and endanger biodiversity by reducing faunal and floral wealth,”Ashutosh added.
Talking about the wildlife that apparently was affected the most, Ashutosh said, “Forest fires in India usually break out from the month of February to mid June and this period is also the peak breeding time for most species. If we talk about Uttarakhand forest fires, the worst affected species are birds which breed during spring and summer season. The nestling and mid canopy birds have been severely affected by the forest fires that occurred this year. Some birds were incubating, some ready to fly and some died in the egg shell itself.”
The Loss that is hard to defeat
SR Sumant Y, Aquatic Biogeochemist from National Institute of Oceanography, who is working in the Himalayan area in a project on river Ganga also voiced alarm over the loss to the flora and fauna in the forest fires.
“Himalayan region is a so vast and it harbours different types of ecosystems at different levels right from the foot hill plateaus to the mountain top alpines. The living organisms are dependent on forest for many things. Floral diversity is also abundant with rich greenery including, flowering plants, economically important trees, tall trees, pine trees, deodar trees etc. Himalayan region also has orchards for apples, strawberries and many other fruits that are consumed naturally by the animals and are commercially exported for human survival. Faunal diversity includes, Himalayan Thar, Himalayan Langur, Himalayan Black Bear, Leopard, Himalayan Monal, Yellow Vented Bulbul to name a few, apart from hundreds of different species of birds, mammals and other micro fauna,” he remarks.
Talking about the loss, he added, “The lung of India is burning and with it a lot of medicinal plants that are indigenous to this region. It means species which cannot be found in any other parts of the world might have been wiped out with the fire.”
“I noticed in the mountainous regions of Tehri, many villagers make circular fires mid forest to clear off the dead leaves and the ashes work as natural fertilizers for the younger plants, but there always a risk of expansion of the fire which may lead to the destruction of the whole forest. The same thing may have happened in this fire which completely devastated the affected forests’ ecosystem,” says Sumanth.
Another noted wildlife biologist Krishna Khan noted that approximately 375 Species of birds and 162 species of plants are endemic to Himalayan Range which was badly affected by this forest fire.
“For most of the species this is the breeding season. Even if birds and few animals flew off from forest fire, a large eco-patch of a geographic area has been affected by the fire which indirectly affected regional atmospheric temperature. The hard reality is many roasted birds, nests and hatchlings are been discovered by several naturalist groups,” informed Krishna.
“I am also against the blame game that palm needles extended the fire or locals are 100 percent responsible for the incident because what has happened was preplanned. Sadly Indian democracy can only focus on their corporate, industrial and material resources than giving deserving importance to natural resources,” Krishna further added.
Talking about public support Krishna said, “Every year more than 70,000 nature lovers visit Uttarakhand to photograph birds, faunal diversity, conduct workshops but sadly only 1400 individuals responded from across the country when we were in need of volunteers (NDRF and Forest Support not included in the figures).”
Precautions to post-cautions
“All the forest departments in fire-prone states have fire-lines (about 10 metre wide) that disconnect forest patches within a division. The authorities are supposed to maintain the fire-lines and keep it devoid of dry leaves by burning them beforehand. Such maintenance should be done beforehand,” Ashraf stated.
Saying that the whole idea is to prevent fires, Ashraf said, “We must ensure that fire do not spread from one patch to another. The way to prevent is by maintaining the fire-lines meticulously every year, stop human encroachments, sensitising villages in and around forests and consider it a State or national calamity every time it strikes.”
“In my personal view, such incidents happen because of diminishing and blatant disrespect for the buffer zones around green areas and lack of awareness among people. These forests used to remain cool due to presence of earthen moisture, small ponds, and seasonal rivers within the forest. Now temperature is rising and humans have also encroached upon the ponds and made buildings. So technically there are no water bodies remaining in the forest which can stop such wild fires,” rued Ravi Singh.
Talking about the solution, Sumanth said, “Nature has its own cure, as forest fires are very much rampant in many places, yet the regeneration process goes on continuously and quickly. Anthropogenic activities should be minimised and residents of the region should also be educated with the alternative and eco-friendly processes of waste disposal rather than setting it ablaze in the middle of the forest.”
As part of solution Ashutosh suggests, “To evade damaging fires it is very necessary to maintain forest fire line by the Forest Department and it is high time that the government reframes its policies of conservation of forests and makes amendments in the Forest Acts before it is too late.”
Pointing to flaw in system, Krishna notes, “Every year the Department hires locals to make fire line to avoid forest fire, but delay in release of funds, delay in working plans etc. invite such tragedies. Whether it’s natural or caused by man, preparedness and the response time are a big factor,” Krishna concluded.