Uttarakhand Forest Fires: A Second Look

Forest Fires in India


It has been three months since most of the forests of Uttarakhand are being ravaged by wildfires. Two straight years of drought compounded by unusually high temperatures and winds to fan the flames are likely to have brought these devastating forest fires on. But what remains our biggest concern is the allegations against local timber traders – the suspicion that large areas of forest cover were willfully destroyed by local smugglers and timber merchants. While the nation may by now have lost its sensitivity to some bit of corruption and misdemeanours in almost all walks of life, setting large forestlands in Uttarakhand on fire has very far-reaching consequences.

Ecological Damage in Uttarakhand

  • Fire in nearly 1200 spots in the state of Uttarakhand was doused after extensive firefighting work and widespread rainfall. 3,465 hectares of forested land in the state have been demolished.
  • Some of the worst affected include: Pauri, Almora, Nainital, Pithoragarh, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, and Tehri. Seven lives have been claimed as yet and the damage to flora, fauna, and wildlife is immeasurable.
  • Two of India’s important national parks, Corbett National Park and Rajaji National Park, are under threat. These are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger and a number of other wildlife species. Apart from destruction of their natural habitat, the fire is posing a number of concerns.
  • One of the major fallouts of the wildfire is the generation of “black carbon”. Black carbon, which is created by the incomplete combustion of any biomatter and fossil fuels coats the Himalayan glaciers in the region. This makes the glaciers attract more heat and melt faster causing floods in the plains.
  • Even as smoke and debris start to make life difficult in Uttarakhand, the next worry is that the fire and death of the region’s animal population may start to pollute the pristine rivers and water sources soon.
  • Destruction of grasslands and lack of fodder for the livestock in the area is another worry that is starting to haunt locals.
  • The regions worst affected in Uttarakhand are the same regions that are rich in fruit orchards and hold horticultural treasures that will now be lost.
  • The loss of income from lack of tourism due to the forest fires is another pressing concern.

Forest Fires in India

Despite its immense population, alarming levels of pollution, and rapidly expanding urban landscape, India is still home to a great deal of forest cover. Recent news reports suggest that almost 21.34 per cent of the country’s land area is covered by forests. This means that an estimated 701,673 square kilometres of India is under forest cover.

Despite this and frequent episodes of massive forest fires, any form of statistical data on forest fires in the country is still rooted in conjecture and rough estimates. According to the Forest Survey of India, about 50 per cent of the forested parts of India are prone to catch fire. But the area that is affected by severe and regular wildfires is a much smaller area. The risk is not alarming unless there is human intervention and artificial fires are started.

Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Odisha are some of the states that remain highly prone to forest fires in the country. And 2016 has been an exceptionally tough one. The number of forest fires reported in the first four months of 2016 is more than that in any of the past three years.

In 2013, some 18,451 forest fires were reported across India. In 2014, this figure was pegged at 19,054, and in 2015, some 15,937 forest fires were reported nationwide. By April 2016, some 20,667 forest fires have been reported across the country.

Forest Fires In India

Apart from the forest fires reported in Uttarakhand, some 2,422 such incidents have been reported in Chhattisgarh between January and April 2016, 2,349 fires were reported in Odisha, 2,238 forest fires were reported in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, 1,719 fires were reported in the forests of Assam, and 1,638 fires in Maharashtra’s forests.

State Number of Incidents
Chhattisgarh 2422
Odisha 2349
Madhya Pradesh 2238
Assam 1719
Maharashtra 1638
Total 10366

Table showing incidents of forest fires in India from Jan-Apr 2016

Even a look at Uttarakhand reveals how 2016 has been by far a very difficult year in comparison with 2015 and 2014 when it comes to forest fires. In 2015 only about 930.3 hectares of the state came under forest fires and in 2014, some 384.5 hectares.

Relief and Rains

The forest fires of Uttarakhand have been doused to a great extent, thanks to the commendable efforts of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the Indian Air Force, and various other local and central agencies. The onset of mild showers in many parts of the affected region has significantly helped relief operations, though.

Forest fires are currently a major concern in India and many parts of the world. Nepal, parts of the US (Arizona), and Canada (Alberta) are combating major forest fires even as India grapples with this disaster. It is becoming increasingly important that humankind understand the effects of unrestrained pollution and destruction of the green cover and consequent global warming. Let us act and save the planet before we destroy it and our race in the process.