At least 60 per cent of districts in India are affected by forest fires each year, and the top 20 districts in terms of fire frequency are located mainly in the Northeast, a joint report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and World Bank has said.
The top 20 districts in terms of area affected by fire from 2003 to 2016 account for 48 per cent of the total fire-affected area, the report found. In line with other parts of the world, people are the main driver of fires in India and forest fires are distributed close to people and infrastructure, it said.
The report, released on Tuesday, is significant in light of the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report that explores possibilities of keeping the global temperature rise within 1.5 degree Celsius to prevent catastrophic impacts due to unchecked temperature rise. Forest fires contribute to climate change by releasing carbon stored in trees, undergrowth and soil into the atmosphere.
The findings are crucial for India’s own commitment to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of Co2-equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. Though the MoEF issued national guidelines on Forest Fire Prevention and Management (FFPM) in 2000, these are no longer being implemented. The report is expected to be a key input in issuing a national policy on FFPM.
“Over the longer term, shifts in climate caused by anthropogenic global warming may further alter India’s forest landscape and fire regime,” the report said. Noting that India’s monsoons are largely responsible for the seasonal nature of forest fires in the country, the report pointed out that forest fires peak during the dry months of March or April before the arrival of the monsoon, and the fire season mainly occurs during the four-month period between February 15 and May 15.
In the Northeast, where most frequent fires are observed, they tend to be concentrated in a smaller area that is subject to repeat burning, the report stated. “The peak fire season is the most concentrated (shortest) in the Northeast and the Northern state of Bihar… fires in other regions, particularly districts in Central and Southern India, are more expansive. Districts experiencing widespread and frequent forest fires include areas of dry and moist deciduous forest in the borderlands of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Telangana that are affected by fire on a nearly annual basis,” it noted.
The report observed that the reduced contrast in land-sea temperatures had weakened the engine that drives the monsoon, however, “It is not clear how the drying of the monsoon has affected the intensity or frequency of forest fires.”
The report also referred to scientists from the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), who found evidence of fires affecting forests with significant ecological value. “Between 2006 and 2015, the authors report that forest fires were detected in just under half (281 of 614) of the protected areas in India. In the year 2014, fires burned about 8.6 per cent of forest cover in protected areas,” the report stated.