Forest fire, causes, types and management in J&K: Guest column by Maraj-Ud-Din-Malik (DCF)

By: Maraj-ud-Din Malik (DCF)

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” (Greek Proverb)

The most common hazard in forests is fire. Forest fire poses a threat not only to the forest wealth but also to the entire regime to fauna and flora seriously disturbing the bio-diversity and the ecology and environment of a region.  During summer and autumn, when there is no rain for months, the forests become littered with dry senescent leaves and twigs, which could burst into flames ignited by the slightest spark.  Forest fire causes imbalances in nature and endangers biodiversity by reducing faunal and floral wealth. Traditional methods of fire prevention are not proving effective and it is now essential to raise public awareness on the matter, particularly among those people who live close to or in forested areas.


Causes of forest fires can be divided into two broad categories: Environmental (which are beyond control) and human related (which are controllable). 

ENVIRONMENTAL: Many forest fires start from natural causes such as lightning which set trees on fire. However, rain extinguishes such fires without causing much damage.  High atmospheric temperatures and dryness (low humidity) offer favorable circumstance for a fire to start.

Environmental causes are largely related to climatic conditions such as temperature, wind speed and direction, level of moisture in soil and atmosphere and duration of dry spells.  Other natural causes are the friction of bamboos swaying due to high wind velocity and rolling stones that result in sparks setting off fires in highly inflammable leaf litter on the forest floor. 

HUMAN RELATED: Fire is caused when a source of fire like naked flame, cigarette, electric spark or any source of ignition comes into contact with inflammable material.  Human related causes result from human activity as well as methods of forest management. These can be intentional or unintentional, for example:  graziers and gatherers of various forest products starting small fires to obtain good grazing grass as well as to facilitate gathering of minor forest produce. The centuries old practice of shifting cultivation (especially in the North-Eastern region of India and in parts of the States of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh), the use of fires by villagers to ward off wild animals, fires lit intentionally by people living around forests for recreation

The causes of forest fire have been increasing rapidly. The problem has been accentuated by the growing human and cattle population. People enter forests ever more frequently to graze cattle, collect fuelwood, timber and other minor forest produce. It has been estimated that 90% of forest fires in India are man-made.

TYPES OF FOREST FIRES: There are two types of forest fire 

  1. Surface Fire and (ii) Crown Fire. 

SURFACE FIRE: A forest fire may burn primarily as a surface fire, spreading along the ground as the surface litter (senescent leaves and twigs and dry grasses etc) on the forest floor and is engulfed by the spreading flames.

CROWN FIRE: The other type of forest fire is a crown fire in which the crown of trees and shrubs burn, often sustained by a surface fire. A crown fire is particularly very dangerous in a coniferous forest because resinous material given off burning logs burn furiously. On hill slopes, if the fire starts downhill, it spreads up fast as heated air adjacent to a slope tends to flow up the slope spreading flames along with it. If the fire starts uphill, there is less likelihood of it spreading downwards.

EFFECT OF FOREST FIRE: Loss of valuable timber resources, degradation of catchment areas , loss of biodiversity and extinction of plants and animals , loss of wildlife habitat and depletion of wildlife, loss of natural regeneration and reduction in forest cover , global warming , loss of carbon sink resource and increase in percentage of CO2 in atmosphere , change in the microclimate of the area with unhealthy living conditions, soil erosion affecting productivity of soils and production ,  ozone layer depletion, health problems leading to diseases , loss of livelihood for tribal people and the rural poor as approximately 300 million people are directly dependent upon collection of non-timber forest products from forest areas for their livelihood.

THE NEED OF THE FIRE MANAGEMENT: The incidence of forest fires in the country is on the increase and more area is burned each year. The major cause of this failure is the piecemeal approach to the problem. The technical resources required for sustaining a systematic forest fire management programme are badly needed. Important forest fire management elements like strategic fire centers, coordination among Ministries, funding, human resource development, fire research, fire management, and extension programmes are need of the hour.

Taking into consideration the serious nature of the problem, it is necessary to make some major improvements in the forest fire management strategy for the country. There is need of a well-coordinated and integrated fire-management programme that includes the following components: 

  1. Prevention of human-caused fires through education and environmental modification. It will include silvicultural activities, engineering works, people participation, and education and enforcement. It is proposed that more emphasis be given to people participation through Joint Forest Fire Management for fire prevention.
  2. Removal of surface litter, pine needles, dry leaves frequently from ground which spread fire quickly once they catch fire.
  3. Establishment of Watch towers to detect fire in remote areas so that staff is alerted well in time.
  4. Restriction of people’s movement deep inside forests unnecessarily especially during dry season
  5. Awareness among nomadic people not to carry fire causing substances inside forests and ensuring that fire lit for coking, driving away wild animals etc is extinguished completely.
  6. Creation of fire lines inside forests to check spread of fire.
  7. Use of modern fire extinguishing tools by staff to control forest fire in inaccessible areas where carrying water is very difficult.
  8. Training of staff in collaboration with Fire and Emergency department, Disaster Management etc to tackle forest fire to ensure least possible damage.
  9. Establishment of ponds, water harvesting structures in fire vulnerable forests to store rain water for extinguishing fires
  10. Establishment of special Forest Fire control rooms with trained and well-equipped staff for quick action and coordination
  11. Prompt detection of fires through a well-coordinated network of observation points, efficient ground patrolling, and communication networks. Remote sensing technology is to be given due importance in fire detection. For successful fire management and administration, a National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) and Fire Forecasting System are to be developed 
  12. Special emphasis is to be given to research, training, and development.

The author is Regional Director, Social Forestry Department, Kashmir. Email: t[email protected]


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