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Forest fires alarm environmentalists in India as heat waves persist

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Apr 20, 2022 - 08:07 AM

NEW DELHI (AA) – As India reels under severely hot weather conditions, the country’s environmentalists are worried by reports of forest fires in various states.

A massive fire broke out in the Sariska Tiger Reserve – a wildlife sanctuary in the Rajasthan state – over two weeks ago, with authorities deploying helicopters to contain the situation.

In the last few weeks, similar incidents were reported from other Indian states, including Jharkhand and Gujarat, where the Mitiyala sanctuary is known for its Asiatic lion population.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, R. Siddappa Setty, a scientist from the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said big canopy fires across the protected areas in India are worrying.

“The forest fires will kill saplings, and to some extent reproductive adult trees. It will also have an impact on fauna as well, because different forest species, including reptiles and snakes, won’t be able to escape from canopy fire,” warned Setty.

Climate change

He said recent canopy fires are linked to dry spells due to climate change and largely associated with management issues like a blanket ban on fire.

“Indian tropical dry deciduous forests are prone to fire. These forests used to experience low-intensity fires in the past,” he said.

“A blanket ban on litter fires is transitioning to canopy fire. Accumulation of biomass which was in check through litter fires also leads to big canopy fires.”

The expert also said studies done in the forests have shown that there is a strong relationship between fires and lantana proliferation leading to increasing incidents of high-intensity canopy fires.

According to India’s state of forests report 2021, the total forest cover of the country is 713,786 square kilometers (443,526 square miles) – nearly a quarter of the country’s geographical area.

The report also noted that 22.27% of the forest cover of the country is high to extremely fire-prone.

The Indian government said in the parliament last year that from November 2020 to June 2021, the country saw 345,989 forest fires. The number of fires was highest in the last five years.

According to the government, the number of forest fires in the country varies from year to year and fires mostly occur from November to May every year due to various natural and anthropogenic reasons.

The government also said since forests are managed by the provincial governments, the responsibility of forest fire prevention and management lies primarily with the respective state governments.

Tigers face threat

Professor Ravindra Khaiwal, an environmental expert in northern India, told Anadolu Agency that recurrent fires have “endangered the lives of tigers in the reserved forest.”

“Each year, forest fires devastate vital forest resources, including carbon locked in the biomass. The fires impair the flow of commodities and services from forests, and the smoke also disturbs different forest species and animals in the reserve,” he said.

He said people living near woodlands often deliberately start fires to promote grass growth for animal grazing and crop rotation.

“Additionally, fire is also used to clean the land, allowing for the easy collection of minor crops such as Mahua flowers (edible food item for tribal people, and used to manufacture beverages). Such fires become uncontrollable sometimes due to dry grass and plants,” said Khaiwal.

The environmentalist also said the recent fires were caused by a dry spell coupled with human negligence and low rainfall.

Intense heat wave

Mahesh Palawat, the head of a private Indian weather agency, told Anadolu Agency that unlike in the past, March this year saw an intense heat wave, with the weather conditions in India in April continuing to remain hot.

“Since 1909, for the first time, we saw a pan-India average maximum temperature of 33 degrees (Celsius) in the month of March,” he said, adding that heat wave and less rainfall triggered forest fires at various places in the country.

“We need increased patrolling, and efficient firefighting apparatus to check forest fires,” Khaiwal said, adding that better monitoring and using visitors as the reserve authorities’ ears and eyes cannot be overstated.

He said that due to the rising number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the area’s temples, monitoring of routes and fire lines must be enhanced.

Echoing Khaiwal’s views, Setty said fire lines drawn by the forest departments need to be managed with the scientific Geographic Information System and remote sensing data keeping in view the vulnerability of the forest.

“Fire management strategies should be prepared by the forest department with the local community participation,” he said, adding that there is a need to conduct more research on forest fires.

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