India’s forests have become increasingly vulnerable to fires due to hotter summers, erratic rainfall and longer dry spells triggered mainly by climate change

Forest fires are increasing in frequency in India (Photo by Aditya Joshi)

The beginning of summer in India has arrived with a spate of forest fires across the country. Fires are raging in the dry deciduous forests of southern and western India. Sporadic fires have begun in the sub-tropical forests of the Himalayas as well.

Even as the weathermen predict a scorching summer, 22 patches of forests are burning in the hilly state of Uttarakhand in northern India. The state made headlines in 2016 when 3500 hectares of forests were charred in a major fire outbreak. In the western state of Maharashtra, 1,500 forest fires were recorded in the past six weeks. Nearly a score of people have been killed in a massive forest fire in Tamil Nadu recently.

With the weather becoming increasingly hotter due to climate change, it is likely that the forests will become less resilient to fires in the times to come.

Warmer than normal temperatures are likely in all meteorological sub-divisions of the country, according to the seasonal outlook for temperatures during the hot weather season, released by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Pune. Average temperatures between March and May in the north-western and central India are likely to be above normal by more than one degree Celsius.

“North and north-west region will be relatively warmer than the south in India. Also, what we are observing is that heat waves (number of days) are increasing and cold waves are decreasing since 1971. The observed trends are in tune with similar trends observed over various other parts of the world,” D.S. Pai, the scientist heading climate prediction of climate research division of IMD, told indialcimatedialogue.net. “The temperatures are increasing for forests as well.”

Sharp rise in temperatures

Local weathermen in Uttarakhand are already reporting sharp increases in temperatures. There are reports of maximum temperatures exceeding 5-6 degrees above normal in both the hills and plains areas. Evidence suggests that winters are getting drier and warmer due to lower rainfall in the colder months and rising temperatures due to climate change. This back-to-back dry spell of winter and summer will have implications for the forests and their vulnerability towards forest fires.

Forests were browning and getting drier due to heat induced moisture stress, according to a 2013 study titled Consistent response of vegetation dynamics to recent climate change in tropical mountain regions that was published in the Global Change Biology journal.

Forests are losing their regenerative capacity due to repeated fires (Photo by Aditya Joshi)

The study analysed decadal trends and seasonal cycles of vegetation greenness using monthly time series of satellite greenness and climate data for the period 1982–2006 for 47 mountainous protected areas in five biodiversity hotspots. The study area also included forests in the mountainous region of north-east India, but similar impacts on forests in peninsular India cannot be ruled out.

“Most of the forest fires in India are anthropogenic but climate change will play a factor. We saw a bad monsoon season last year and situation was quite bad in central India. With water scarcity and rising heat, forest fires will also increase,” Milind Pariwakam, who is heading the Central Indian Landscape Programme of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Also, the dryness in forest will keep increasing as per the 2013 study done by Jagdish Krishnaswamy (one of the authors of the above mentioned study). This dryness will only aggravate the situation.”

Multiple burnings

Most forest fires in India are caused by arson but what is more worrying is that the same forest gets burnt multiple times in a season for collection of forest produce, giving little chance of recovery to the forests and the wildlife they shelter.

“Fire is a natural phenomenon and the dry deciduous forests of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are ecologically adapted to withstand sporadic, occasional natural fires,” wildlife conservationist M.K. Ranjitsinh wrote in his book A Life with Wildlife.

“The forests of central India are subjected to three to five deliberate, man-caused burns in the drier six months of each year. The forest fires are set around January to get a fresh flush of grass for livestock grazing. A month thereafter, fire again sweeps through to encourage a fresh growth of tendu leaves. The next month, fire is set to blacken the ground so as to enable easier picking of the white mahua flowers from which local liquor is made. Later in the summer, if the forest happens to be of Sal, fire is set twice, with an interval in between, to facilitate the picking of Sal seed,” Ranjitsinh wrote. “No forest can thrive under such unnatural onslaught, especially the younger trees and bamboo, and regeneration of most tree species is adversely affected.”

Aditya Joshi, a naturalist based in Nagpur in Maharashtra and head of Conservation Research at Wildlife Conservation Trust, has mapped the intensity of forest fires in Chandrapur Forest circle, an important habitat for tigers in central India. He found that forest fires in the region during second to third week of March were of maximum intensity, even indicating repetitive burning of the same forest patches. The fire intensity is a measure of energy output rate per unit length of fire front.

Fire intensity in the Chandrapur forest circle in Maharashtra (Image by Aditya Joshi)

Often the burning period coincides with the breeding season of ground egg-laying birds like jungle fowls and spells doom for reptiles and insects that are unable to escape it.

“Forest fires increase conflict with the wild animals. We saw a tigress with cubs in a burning forest. Due to lack of undergrowth and because there was so much of fire, she had nowhere to hide her cubs,” Joshi told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Also, forest fires are not taken as seriously as loss of forest or degradation of forests. With forest fire, regeneration gets affected. There is nothing left to eat for wild animals, also the seed germination gets affected and the next vegetation that comes up is usually the fire-resistant one and hence the original biodiversity doesn’t get restored. There is no mention of gravity of this problem.”

Climate change

With the increasing anthropogenic pressures on forest, climate change will only add to the problem. “We are observing that the intensity of fires is increasing. It is no longer restricted to the ground. Now we are also seeing canopy fire and with changes in climate it will only get difficult,” said Pariwakam.

Changing vegetation both due to natural and man-made reasons is making the scenario more challenging. For instance, the hills of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have become more vulnerable due to high-calorific pine forests. Pine needles are highly inflammable due to high resin content and environmentalists have been asking for removal of pine needles in the fire-prone season.

Climate change is worsening the problem of forest fires (Photo by Aditya Joshi)

“We need value addition of pine needle cones. Forty per cent of the middle Himalayas are pine forests and that’s a big quantum,” Parag Madhukar Dhakate, Conservator of Forests, Western Circle, Kumaon, Uttarakhand, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “A lot of research and development is required and a potential business strategy is needed to use them in craft, fuel wood and packaging material.”

Dhakate has been dealing with the challenging issue first hand and his men on ground are the first line of defence when it comes to controlling forest fires. Through counter-firing and traditional method of beating, they try to contain the herculean problem. “Heat generated from forest fires is such that one cannot stand beyond 10-15 minutes at a stretch,” Dhakate said. “The temperatures are so high that it leads to massive amount of dehydration. It needs lot of courage and motivation to deal with it.”

B.P. Gupta, the nodal forest officer looking at forest fires in Uttarakhand, said that even though there is one third less fire so far as compared to 2016, but due to erratic rainfall and heat, it is getting more difficult to predict forest fires. “So we don’t know what the situation will be like as the period of forest fires has just begun,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Vicious cycle

The relationship between forest fires and climate change is that of a vicious cycle. While climate change is expected to increase the intensity of forest fires, fires in turn unlock the trapped carbon that is stored in forests and increase global warming effect. Also, there are concerns that the black carbon generated due to inefficient burning of forests especially in the north settle on glaciers and further expedite their melting. However, more studies are needed to study the links.

Some estimates suggest that the number of forest fires have increased by over 45% between 2003 and 2017. India has come up with a new draft forest policy for the country which also addresses the issue by emphasising on mapping vulnerable areas, developing and strengthening early warning systems and methods to control fire but experts say better technologies and more emphasis on human-induced fires are needed to save the forest ecosystems.

 

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