The recent raging fires in the forested areas of Uttarakhand—which had spread to the nearby states of Himachal Pradesh and J&K (though now these appear to have been doused by a rainy spell)—have once again brought to the fore the hazards of forest fires in our country. Such fires are known to humans for ages and the fires in Canadian boreal forests are a glaring example of the same.
In this context, environmentalists must inquire whether climate change (since the advent of the Industrial Revolution) has accelerated the intensity and frequency of forest fires? Further, what consequential impact such fires have on climate change? To put simply, we need to ponder if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between forest fires and climate change.
So, how far can climate change exacerbate forest fires? Although no scientific study appears to have been done in this regard so far, but some factors causing these fires do indicate that they may be the result of climate change to an extent. Forest fires essentially are ‘quasi-natural’, which means that they are not entirely caused by natural reasons (like volcanoes, earthquakes and tropical storms), but are caused by human activities as well. The causes vary around the world. For example, in Canada, the US and Australia, lightning strike is a major source of fires, while in Mexico, South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Fiji and New Zealand, these fires can be attributed to activities such animal husbandry, agriculture, etc.
In India’s case, a combination of hot weather, oxygen and dry vegetation is a potent recipe for forest fires. Besides, factors like friction caused by dry timber rubbing against each other and sparks produced from stones falling also lead to forest fires. Tourists and trekkers add to the problem by smoking, recreational activities and littering the forest with glass objects which work as convex lenses capable of igniting fires. Timber mafia, who eye commercially viable trees, also cause such fires. The non-maintenance of fire lines—a gap in vegetation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a forest fire—for the last 150 years is yet another reason.
Forest fires have an adverse impact on the ambient air of the region. The 1997 Indonesian forest fire is a case in point. It is estimated that this fire had released between 0.81 and 2.57 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is between 13% to 40% of the global carbon emissions caused by burning of fossil fuels.
Forest fires do enormous damage by destroying the entire ecosystem of insects, butterflies and reptiles; they also lead to deaths of thousands of larger animals and create various health hazards like asthma and other respiratory diseases for human beings. Further, they have a devastating effect on the region’s glaciers. In fact, glaciers of Uttarakhand, which are the life line of major north Indian rivers, have been covered by ‘black carbon’ (due to incomplete combustion of fossil fuels/biofuels and fires), causing them to melt faster. According to researchers, this has already led to a rise in temperature by 0.2 degrees Celsius across northern India; this can have a detrimental effect on the monsoon rainfall. The heavy loss of valuable timber cannot be ignored.
Both state and central governments have had a lackadaisical approach to this environmental catastrophe; the Uttarakhand fires were observed as early as in February, but no concrete steps were taken to mitigate the fires. While governments need to act fast and in time, we also need to get the local communities involved, as was the case during the British Raj. Earlier, the locals, in a spirit of collective responsibility, were at the forefront of managing forests because they had a stake by way of getting fodder for their cattle, firewood and other useful products. But after the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, forests come under the purview of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, leading to restrictions for even the locals to enter forest areas.
Forests are the lungs of earth. We should protect and preserve them at all costs. Although the fires in Uttarakhand and neighbouring states have been doused by rains, that should not be a reason for complacency, especially keeping in view the imminent start of the Char Dham Yatra in a few days.
The author is former director, CSO (ISS), and UN Consultant firstname.lastname@example.org