A burning concern

Fires spew a lot of sparks. A fire that raged for a fortnight in Odisha’s Simlipal Tiger Reserve has sparked a controversy that has local activists and the forest department engaged in a fiery exchange of words. The 2,900sqkm sanctuary in the mountains of Mayurbhanj district is home to 100 tigers, most of which are in a core area of 845sqkm. The Odisha government insists that it brought the fire under control within a fortnight, and that the core area was untouched by flames.

The fire was caused by local people gathering mahua flowers to make an intoxicating drink. As is their practice, they set the forest floor on fire to burn dry leaves on the ground and collect the flowers that are not burnt. The forest department says it had long tried to discourage the practice by supplying the villagers with green nets for gathering flowers and other forest produce.

But the fire in Simlipal has apparently been so destructive that activists are now questioning the department’s firefighting abilities. Even as embers cooled in Simlipal, reports of a devastating fire in neighbouring Kuldiha sanctuary poured in. The activists are demanding an independent assessment of the loss of the flora and fauna in Simlipal, saying the fire in Asia’s second largest biosphere has destroyed a huge number of reptiles, amphibians, birds, orchids and mushrooms.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Forest officials, however, say activists are making a volcano out of a molehill. They say such medium-intensity fires are common in the extremely dry months of March and April. According to the Forest Research Institute and state forest departments, India has around seven lakh square kilometres of declared forests, and it reports 30,000 forest fires a year on an overage. But loss of forest area has never been higher that 1,000sqkm a year.

According to government data, there were 886 large fires (ones that encompass 10 or more hectares) in the last week of February alone. Of these, 233 were in Odisha, and 126 and 107 were in Telangana and Madhya Pradesh, respectively. The fires are mainly caused by human activity―ranging from controlled fires set off by forest managers to the burning of dry leaves by tribals and mischief by miners and poachers.

According to the last biennial State of Forest Report released in 2019―a new report is due this year, but Covid-related restrictions on field work may delay it―one in every 11sqkm of forest in India was “extremely” or “highly” fire-prone for a variety of reasons. A big chunk of forests in northeast states are in this category, while more than 10 forests in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra are in the highly to moderately fire-prone category.

Interestingly, these states account for 25 of 50 tiger reserves in the country. They also have national parks for large mammals. But veteran foresters say large-scale wildfires, like the one that happened in Australia last year, remain rare in India. Three years ago, major fires destroyed large tracts of forests in Bandipur in Karnataka and Theni in Tamil Nadu. Now that the fire in Simlipal has been doused, a fair survey can reveal how much damage has been done. India’s forest fire-fighting strategy, meanwhile, could use more resources to tackle rampant fires caused by extreme climate change.