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Why the hills are burning?

On paper, two-thirds of the state is under forest cover, but its own data shows that in the past two decades, roughly 48,000 ha. has been lost to development activities as well as fires. — Anilesh S. Mahajan


In the first week of April, India hosted US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, in New Delhi as a precursor to the Leaders’ Summit with President Joe Biden later this month and COP-26 (the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference) in November. Around the same time, barely 300 km away in hill state Uttarakhand’s capital Dehradun, chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat was huddled in an emergency meeting to deal with the spreading forest fire in the state. His state, along with neighbouring hill state Himachal Pradesh, is witnessing unprecedented wildfires. The situation is getting worse by the day as the region has had a prolonged dry spell, leaving the forest floor “tinder dry”.

Uttarakhand and Himachal see the most forest fires in India every year. The Forest Survey of India (FSI) has identified the woodlands along the south, west and southwest regions of Uttarakhand, including Dehradun, Hardwar, Garhwal, Almora, Nainital, Udham Singh Nagar and Champawat districts, as the most vulnerable in terms of the frequency and intensity of wildfires. This year, Nainital, Almora, Tehri and Pauri districts have been the worst hit.

Locals say the standing oak trees are also burning this time, besides the pines, which catch fire more easily. They say this means the earth is completely dry. The lack of soil moisture is a key factor, the last two monsoons in 2019 and 2020 were rain deficient by 18-20 per cent of the seasonal average. Generally, forest fires happen when the ground has large quantities of dry wood, leaves, stumps, dry grass, all of which can easily go up in flames if there is a trigger. Last year, human movement was also restricted because of the lockdown and Covid restrictions, so the forests were in better shape. Increased access to LPG cylinders as cooking fuel has also led to drastic reduction in use of forest waste in the hill states. Even so, the trigger for the fires could be natural or man-made.

A bigger problem is that Indian environment and climate change policymakers do not factor in forest fires as carbon emitters, nor does the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) consider it a natural disaster. Based on analysis of satellite images, the European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS) says the Uttarakhand fires have already emitted 0.2 mega tonnes of carbon in the past month, the highest since 2003. On paper, two-thirds of the state is under forest cover, but its own data shows that in the past two decades, roughly 48,000 ha. has been lost to development activities as well as fires. The locals are used to wildfires in the spring, but it usually peaks in May, and they fear the worst is yet to come.

Meanwhile, Rawat has roped in two MI-17 helicopters from the Centre to fight the fire. Deployed in Kumaon and Garhwal regions, they are using 5,000 litre buckets filled with lake water to douse the flames. Some 12,000 state and central forest personnel are also deployed in the fire-fighting operations but with little success so far. The fire has already destroyed 700 ha. of forest land.

In January 2019, the FSI upgraded their monitoring system by sourcing satellite images from NASA and ISRO for real-time data on fires in the Himalayan states. A long-standing complaint in the region has been that the Forest Act, 1988, dissociates the local community from the forests. Environmentalist and author Shekhar Pathak has been arguing for long that the “van panchayats must be given rights and incentives to protect the jungles”. “We must go back to conventional methods, such as creating waterholes in the hills to recharge groundwater and increase moisture levels and rebuilding ‘fire-lines’ (30-35 feet buffer trenches) in the forests,” he says.

Kerry and the Indian government can continue the preparations for the global climate meet, but policymakers must also find the bandwidth to discern lasting solutions to the perennial problem of wildfires.

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