Relevance – Fires in Bandipur Tiger reserve have become a common phenomenon which leads to the loss of thousands of acres of pristine forests and large scale loss of wildlife.
Primary reasons –
- Abundance of leaf litter and dry shrubs due to the absence of Northeast monsoon provides an ideal condition for wildfire.
- Abundance of dry Lantana camara — an invasive weed that covers almost 50% of the 912.04 sq km reserve which acts as powdered keg.
- Rise of temperature with dearth of rains disturbs the dew formation leading to more risks.
- Cases of intentional lighting of fires to clear the area for vegetation or to drive away wild animals have also come to fore.
Risks associated with forest fires –
- The forest soil receives temporary nutrient enrichment from the burning but reverts to a lower nutrient content than before within a short span.
- Forest areas frequently affected by fire show an erosion of soil, floral and faunal diversity. They are also more vulnerable to the spread of alien invasive plants.
- There is a clear danger of homogenisation of the habitat, with fire-resistant species.
Way ahead –
- There is an immediate need to upgrade the fire-fighting capabilities.
- Introduce scientifically designed fireline.
- Sensitising tribals as generally there are the first responders in case of wild fires. There is a need to train them and seek their active participation.
- A standard operating procedure must be drafted to ensure that, in the future, the department is better prepared in terms of men, materials, and coordination.
- Fuel load must be reduced by controlled burning of undergrowth periodically.
Controlled burning –
Current Indian laws strictly ban fire from Indian forests. The Indian Forest Act of 1927 makes it a criminal offense to burn or to allow a fire to remain burning in reserved and protected forests. This law was enacted in colonial times to ensure the supply of timber for the construction of railways.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 further bans setting fire in wildlife sanctuaries. The exception is the use of controlled burning by the Forest Department. Yet, the practice has not been adopted effectively to control forest fires.
Controlled burning can be useful to reduce the intensity of fires. The accumulation of fuel load over 2-3 years leads to uncontrollably intense fires. Fuel load must be reduced by controlled burning of undergrowth periodically.
The Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change and the World Bank released a joint report on Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India, which recognises that “the controlled use of fire may play a positive role in the management of fire-adapted forests”.