Context: Himachal Pradesh frequently witnesses forest fires during winters that are dry weather conditions. 

More on the news: 

  • Recently, a forest fire has been reported near Kullu, Shimla and other parts of the state.
  • Much of the legally classified forest area in the state is permanently under snow, glaciers, cold desert or alpine meadows and is above the treeline. 
  • Chir Pine, Deodar, Oak, Kail, Fir and Spruce are some of the common trees found here.
  • Forest fires are a recurrent annual phenomenon in the state, and most commonly occur in Chir Pine forests.

Forest fire in the state:

  • In the summer season: 
    • Forest fires occur frequently in the low and middle hills of the state, where forests of Chir Pine are common. 
    • The dry summer season (from March to June) coincides with the shedding of highly-combustible needles by Chir Pine trees. 
      • However, the Chir Pine trees are themselves relatively unharmed (due to their thick bark) by these fires.
  • During the post-monsoon season and in winters: 
    • Forest fires are also reported in higher areas - Shimla, Kullu, Chamba, Kangra and Mandi districts, where they usually occur in grasslands.

Reasons for the forest fire:

  • Natural causes: Such as lightning or rubbing of dry bamboo with each other can sometimes result in fires.
  • Human factors: 
    • Dropping a burning matchstick, torchwood or a bidi or cigarette, can cause a massive fire. 
    • A spark can also be produced when dry pine needles or leaves fall on an electric pole.

Damage caused by such forest fire:

  • Damage to the regeneration in the forests and their productivity
    • May affect capacity of forests to maintain aquifers and continuous flow of streams and springs, and provide firewood, fodder and non-timber produce to the local communities.
    • Moisture-loving trees such as Oaks and Deodars may give way to other species and exotic weeds.
  • Loss of biodiversity: 
    • Forest fires may destroy organic matter in the soil and expose the top layer to erosion. 
    • They may also impact the wildlife by burning eggs, killing young animals and driving the adult animals away from their safe haven. 
  • Danger to human life and property: Sometimes, a forest fire may get out of control and extend to human settlements.
  • Economic loss: According to the Himachal forest department, forest fires cause an estimated loss of several crore rupees each year. 

Way ahead:

  • Forecasting fire-prone days using meteorological data.
  • Need to regulate certain activities in and around forest areas such as lighting a fire, burning agricultural stubble etc.
  • Clearing camping sites of dried biomass, early burning of dry litter on the forest floor.
  • Growing strips of fire-hardy plant species within the forest.
  • Creating fire lines in the forests (fire lines are strips in the forest kept clear of vegetation to prevent the fire from spreading). 
  • Early detection and quick action by fire-fighting squads is crucial.
    • For such activities, the state forest department has a fire protection and fire control unit.

Forest fires in India:

  • According to the report of the Forest Survey of India, over 54% of the forest cover in India is exposed to occasional fire.
    • During 2003–2017, a total of 5,20,861 active forest fire events were detected in India.
  • Forest fire hotspots: (Image source: TH)

The States of northeast India, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand are the most fire prone in India.

  • Carbon emissions during forest fires: A sharp increase of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and ozone during high fire activity periods. 
  • Occurrence at the low altitude Himalaya: According to the study, this phenomenon may be due to the plant species (pine trees) in the area and proximity to villages.  Also, anthropogenic activities like forest cover clearance, grazing may lead to frequent occurrence.
  • Causes of increased episodes of forest fires: Sharp increase in average and maximum air temperature, decline in precipitation, change in land use patterns.

Source: IE