We did start the Uttarakhand firehttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/we-did-start-the-uttarakhand-fire-2786418/

We did start the Uttarakhand fire

A range of preventive and remedial steps must be taken in the hill forests of Uttarakhand.

Illustration by C R Sasikumar
Illustration by C R Sasikumar

Forest fires in the hills of Uttarakhand have damaged valuable natural resources. Forest fire is a common phenomenon during summer in Uttarakhand. However, this time, the fire started in February and spread to most forest areas of the state. The major reasons for forest fires in Uttarakhand are the highly inflammable material of dry chir pine needles and the dry-leaf litter of broad-leaved trees on the forest floor associated with chir pine. Chir pine covers a significant forest area (about16 per cent) in the state and, every year, encroaches on the mixed species area due to its hardy nature as well as the ban on green felling above 1,000 metres.

The chir pine itself is highly resistant to fire due to thick bark but the fallen dry needles are highly inflammable and its open resin ducts are considered a main catalyst for fires in pine forests. Chir pine needles, though used for bedding material for livestock, compost, biomass energy, etc, cannot be utilised on a mass scale. Unfortunately, in recent years, mass migration of villagers from the state has also checked the local utilisation of the needles, leaving more fuel for forest fires. Himalayan forests are spread over difficult and inaccessible terrain, which forest officials cannot access without the help of locals. It’s difficult even for the forest department to cope with the situation. Scant rains, with a dry spell in winter, have also led to early forest fires.

There are already preventive and remedial measures for forest fires, implemented by the state and Central governments in vulnerable areas with sufficient fund allocations. There’s also a scope for involving local communities, NGOs and community-based organisations to minimise fire hazards. Van Panchayat is a unique model in Uttarakhand, effectively managing forests for a long time. But forest communities need capacity-building and acquaintance with modern methods of combating forest fires.

The pine needles, the main fire hazard, need to be converted into a resource for the community by extending capital, technological and industrial support for their effective utilisation and as a livelihood opportunity. Forest scientists have already developed different uses of chir pine needles for briquettes, compost, boards, tiles, etc. Some of the measures can be tried through the creation of forest self-help groups (FSHGs) or local forest special purpose vehicle (FSPV) — with an industrial linkage to the removal of dry needles with the help of villagers for making bio-briquettes, compost or vermicompost, composite boards, panels, etc. Further, this activity can be linked with employment generation schemes like MGNREGA, Skill India and Make in India, as well as women’s empowerment schemes. This will provide a double benefit — removing the pine needles from the forest and generating employment and incomes. It’s a bio-fuel and bio-energy resources are always welcome.

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Migration is an indirect issue that needs to be addressed to control forest fires.

The willingness of local village communities to stay in the state can be strengthened by an assurance of employment and basic facilities like healthcare, education and communication. Moreover, those living in villages aren’t willing to continue in agriculture and animal husbandry due to economic concerns. But they can be motivated by nature-related activities with a market tag, for example, organic crops and products like millets, milk, mushrooms, fruits, colourants, fibres, etc. All these activities make people vigilant and also protect their surroundings.

The conventional centuries-old method of making fire lines or firebreaks (also used as inspection paths) and burning and clearing them before the summer is also not practised properly due to a lack of manpower. Usually, a forest guard or beat guard would look after a large forest area, which is difficult to cover even over several days on the tough terrain. Therefore, the forest department needs to exclusively recruit forest-fire-fighting staff acquainted with modern technologies.

There can be other approaches to reducing the fire hazard in the monoculture/ pure chir pine forest, like the inclusion or plantation of indigenous broad-leaved, moisture-conserving species, particularly banj oak, Myrica, Alder, Rhododendron, etc at higher elevations and sal, khair, Harad, Baheda, Arjun, sissoo, etc at lower elevations. The selection of species must be done after understanding the local ecology and public needs. Besides, it’s necessary to strictly follow scientific and advanced borehole methods for resin extraction.

An important start was made in 1984 when the FAO/ UNDP-assisted project in modem forest fire control was launched by the Union government, with pilot projects by the Haldwani (Uttarakhand) and Chandrapur (Maharashtra) forest divisions. But the same hasn’t been adopted in a larger context. Modern fire-fighting techniques like the Early Forest Fire Detection Using Radio-Acoustic Sounding System, Doppler radar, etc seem to be reasonable options. Further, the use of modern forest fire detection and monitoring systems with help from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) and Isro, as well as creating awareness among locals along with their participation, can be a better solution.

Since 2004, the FSI has been monitoring forest fires using Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (Modis) and GIS-based technology. The FSI, Dehradun, aided by the Isro satellite system, has been given the responsibility of forest fire warnings on the basis of meteorological data — temperature and wind velocity in fire-prone areas. The FSI sends information to a state’s principal chief conservator of forests (PCCFs), from where it is disseminated to the range and block levels. But how seriously it’s taken is a matter of concern.

On the scientific forestry front, a gradual arrest of the spread of chir pine forest, specially above 1,000 m, is leading to a change in forest composition. The selective green-felling of chir pine, as silvicultural thinning and improvement thinning to help the deodar-oak forests, needs to be done by presenting the case in the Supreme Court. But this can’t mean a mass harvest of chir pine. At lower elevations, felling is allowed, but the forest department doesn’t have a regular schedule of chir pine felling, which needs to be addressed in all working plans. Dry-spell periods are increasing and the moisture regime is gradually depleting. This needs to be redressed by proper soil and water conservation measures to maintain soil moisture and recharge the natural springs.

A participatory approach is key to success in all initiatives, which reflects on joint forest management (JFM) areas by strengthening JFM committees. Similar approaches are needed in strengthening van panchayats and other local bodies.

Last but not least, communication — via print or electronic media, social media, community radio, Doordarshan — can also boost public awareness and action. Communication measures should be activated at the start of summer and some reward and recognition should be announced to motivate locals.

In fire control strategy, emphasis should be put on prevention rather than curing. Curing is of no use after the loss of biodiversity, forest wealth and lives.