Proactive response can keep forest fires under control : The Tribune India

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Proactive response can keep forest fires under control

Forest fires have reached alarming proportions, causing injuries and deaths, and damage to infrastructure and private properties.

Proactive response can keep forest fires under control

BACK-UP: Fire-fighters and managers should be provided with modern tools, equipment and gear. PTI



SP Vasudeva

Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, HP

WILDFIRES, which are triggered by increased temperatures and reduced humidity during summers, are the most common hazard in forests. They annually impact half of the forest area in the country. Forest fires in Uttarakhand have affected more than 1,400 hectares of green cover since November last year. The loss to the forest economy due to fires is much greater than the damage caused by pests and diseases taken together. Besides, the production of noxious gases, a causative factor for climate change, results in serious health hazards.

Wildfires occur when elements of the fire triangle — fuel, air and ignition — come together in a susceptible area. There is a lack of concern about forest fires among communities, society and governments as the loss of life, livestock and property in them pales in comparison to the destruction caused by other disasters. But if associated intangibles — such as the impact on soil fertility, biodiversity loss, effects on watershed functions, soil erosion, the resultant landslides, greenhouse gases and the consequent climate change — are taken into consideration, the comparative assessed loss would be much more. All possible measures are therefore required to prevent forest fires and to control them immediately if they do occur.

Tackling forest fires through a ban-and-punish approach has not worked, requiring strategies and action plans to be devised in consultation with the active participation of all stakeholders, especially forest-based communities, Panchayati Raj organisations, village-based forest bodies, etc. Forest fire management can be a success when clear lines of individual and institutional responsibilities are fixed through a well-defined policy. Forest departments in states and UTs have to be held accountable for the management of forest fires, with the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change addressing the issue at the Central level. The responsibility of communities and organisations in the prevention and control of forest fires also needs to be fixed.

This would require a shift from the Forest Fire Prevention and Management Framework being followed to the Disaster Management Continuum, as contained in the National Policy on Disaster Management (2009), for better results. The former contains just four stages — prevention, detection, suppression and post-fire management — while the latter lists detailed steps of prevention, early warning, mitigation, risk reduction and preparation to ensure that fires do not occur and to initiate an effective response and carry out rescue, relief, evacuation and rehabilitation operations if they do start.

Under the Disaster Management Continuum, preventive measures such as controlling the burning of the forest floor, maintaining fire lines and cleaning forests need to be initiated before the onset of the fire season. As about 80 per cent forest fires have an anthropogenic origin, local forest-based communities and people in general must be made aware of the importance of keeping an ignition source away; it is the best method of preventing forest fires.

Early warning on forest fires helps put effective preventive and preparatory measures in place. ‘Forest fire alerts’, a satellite-based early warning system developed by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), are communicated through the Internet and mobile phones to officers and field staff of the forest departments and community leaders concerned for necessary action. Further, the ‘pre-fire alerts’ developed by the FSI — that are based on high temperature and low humidity — can give a warning about a fire a month in advance. These need to be fully operationalised; the measures could be more effective in preventing forest fires.

The forest fire triangle can be broken through the elimination of one of the sources, most probably by removing combustible material lying in a forest before the fire season, to mitigate the risk of wildfires. The utilisation of such inflammable material for the livelihood generation of local people by manufacturing various commercial products is an ideal option for reducing and mitigating fire risks. Pine needles, the source of fires in Himalayan pine forests, are being utilised through grassroots people’s organisations in the hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand for making marketable products.

Preparations need to begin before the fire season, with preventive and mitigative measures and an early warning system in place. Information made available through pre-fire alerts should be used to initiate preparatory action in the reported fire-prone areas. Local youths with indigenous expertise appointed as fire watchers and forest field staff need to be made ready. Fire-fighters and managers should be provided with modern fire-extinguishing tools, equipment and gear, including fire-resistant clothes, boots, helmets and gloves (which are missing at present) to enable them to tackle wildfires effectively.

If a forest fire occurs despite all these measures, an effective response mechanism has to be in place to immediately extinguish it. Rapid response teams equipped with vehicles with water and other material in each forest division/range must be made ever-ready to control a blaze. National and state disaster forces should be requisitioned only when the situation goes out of control.

Forest fires have reached alarming proportions, causing human injuries and deaths, and damage to infrastructure and private properties. This calls for rescue, relief, evacuation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Those affected by such disasters must be provided with assistance by the disaster management/forest authorities. A physical assessment of the affected area must be replaced with the comprehensive Indian Forest Fire Response and Assessment System to obtain complete information and ensure uniformity. Capacity-building of the stakeholders involved with all aspects of these parameters is an important part of this process, which would improve the forest fire management system.

A shift from the old forest fire prevention and management system to the Disaster Management Continuum would facilitate better strategic management of wildfires. Gaps in the management in each forest division and state have to be flagged every year as a policy decision to devise a better strategy for forest fire management and control.

#Uttarakhand


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