Extreme heat in the region during the past few days, along with dry leaves and timber may have worsened the situation, say experts
After a four-day attempt to douse the forest fire at Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, authorities finally brought it under control. The wildfire broke out on Sunday afternoon and had spread over 10 sq km over the following days. The cause remains unclear.
In March itself, India witnessed multiple forest fires, including a massive fire at Perumalmalai peak near Kodaikanal hills in Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district on March 11, and a forest fire in the areas of the Majhgawan region of Satna district in Madhya Pradesh on March 29.
In its annual Frontiers report, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that wildfires—a natural phenomenon—have become more dangerous and now affect larger areas.
Climate change increasing forest fire threat
Citing heatwave as an aggravator of the Sariska fire, Sudarshan Sharma, Divisional Forest Officer, Alwar, says, “While the cause of the fire remains unknown, consistent high temperatures have worsened the situation. With no rainfall and mercury soaring to extreme levels in the region during the last few days, dry leaves and timber were present in abundance. Under such circumstances, the slightest ignition can result in huge forest fires.”
Forest fire statistics from the corresponding period last year indicate that India may be witnessing increases in forest fires. According to India State of Forest Report 2021, FSI (Forest Survey of India) sensors detected 3,45,000 forest fire cases between November 2020 and June 2021, which accounts for a 177% rise against the fire incidents recorded during the same period in 2019-2020. As per the long-term trend analysis performed by FSI, 22.27% of the forest cover of the country is under the ‘highly’ to ‘extremely’ fire prone category.
While forest fires are part of the natural ecology of many ecosystems across the world, the rising frequency and intensity point to changing climate. “The increasing frequency, intensity and scale of these fires is aided and exacerbated by climate change and that too in the context of accelerating loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitats, which is the problem,” explains Dr. Ravi Chellam, CEO, Metastring Foundation & member, Biodiversity Collaborative.
Parts of India are currently experiencing another heatwave, recording temperatures above 40°C. “Temperatures have been on the rise and there is no doubt about that. Mercury soaring above 30°C-35°C is good enough to fuel forest fires. Arid regions are more at risk due to their geographical features,” adds Mohan Chandra Pargaien, additional principal chief conservator of forests, Telangana.
Commenting on the evaluation of loss that occurs due to such fires, Pargaien says, “usually estimated economic costs of forest fires in India accounts for loss of standing trees and does not consider the ecological services such as carbon sequestration, loss of desertification, wildlife, water retention capability, etc. If taken into account, these can increase the loss manifold. Unfortunately, all these services are not getting due recognition and weightage while formulating strategies to manage forest fires in India.”
Despite timely satellite warnings via alerts and emails and the availability of a real-time app-based fire response system, the fire at Sarika got out of control. “While we do not have control over increasing heatwaves and global warming, we need to plan better to manage forest fires. Controlled burns, fire lines, and early warning systems based on improved short-term weather forecasts combined with fire risk mapping are options. Early detection of fires using a variety of existing and new technologies is possible,” suggests Dr. Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Dean, School of Environment and Sustainability, Indian Institute for Human Settlements & member, Biodiversity Collaborative.