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Community involvement key to combat forest fire

In Uttarakhand as well as in many other parts of the world, wildfires have become a significant menace. Whether it’s Canada, California, Australia, or the Amazon forest, reports indicate that over the last two decades, forest fires have emerged as a serious threat, engulfing vital forests worldwide. While forest fires have occurred in the past, […]

In Uttarakhand as well as in many other parts of the world, wildfires have become a significant menace. Whether it’s Canada, California, Australia, or the Amazon forest, reports indicate that over the last two decades, forest fires have emerged as a serious threat, engulfing vital forests worldwide. While forest fires have occurred in the past, they escalate into uncontrollable blazes when three factors converge simultaneously. Firstly, the absence of winter rains leads to a decrease in moisture levels on the forest surface, rendering it drier. Secondly, summers tend to arrive earlier than usual.

The intensity of the forest fire is exacerbated by the increased shedding of leaves from trees, covering the forest floor with dry litter. Once a fire ignites in one area, it rapidly spreads to others. Initially, it starts as a surface fire, creating gaps in the air that accelerate wind flow, leading to the propagation of canopy fires. The severity of the fire also varies depending on the species of trees present. For instance, pine trees, such as the chir pine in Uttarakhand, contribute significantly to the intensity of fires due to their expansive canopy and the flammable turpentine they produce. Additionally, the shallow root system of pine trees inhibits the growth of underbrush, further fueling the spread of flames. During summer, heavy litter fall combined with pine cones exacerbates the fire, making it more catastrophic.

Other factors also contribute to the severity of forest fires. In the past, communities used to come together in groups to extinguish forest fires, driven by a sense of belonging and responsibility. Villages would take turns assuming responsibility, with one group fighting the fire while another provided water and food. This social mechanism was effective in containing fires. However, since the implementation of a new forest act in 1988, people lost their rights to the forest, which became exclusively controlled by the forest department.

This policy severed the connection between the community and the forest, widening the gap between them. Villagers no longer feel a sense of ownership or responsibility for the forest, as they are restricted from utilizing it. Consequently, they are less inclined to extinguish fires. This detachment has exacerbated the severity of forest fires.

Today, the situation has escalated to the point where the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and helicopters are deployed to combat forest fires. This represents another disaster in many mountainous areas. it’s ironic that despite the efforts of a few individuals within the forest department or government machinery, they often feel helpless when faced with a raging forest fire. One forest guard responsible for overseeing 250 hectares of forest area simply cannot combat such a formidable adversary alone. This underscores the crucial importance of community involvement in fire prevention and management.

Learning from past forest fire incidents, such as the devastating toll in 2016 and similar occurrences over the last three decades, highlights the significance of understanding the relationship between forest fires and water. Water has been utilized as a primary tool to combat fires, whether through water cannons or natural rainfall. Local rains sometimes aid in containing fire spread. The concept of cloud seeding has also emerged as a potential tool, dating back to 1946. This technique involves injecting clouds with ice particles to induce precipitation. Chinese experts have employed cloud seeding effectively, notably during the Olympics to disperse clouds that could disrupt the event.

However, while cloud seeding may offer some benefits, it is not a panacea. It is expensive and potentially disruptive to natural weather patterns. Additionally, it raises ethical concerns about interfering with natural processes. Therefore, while cloud seeding may have its place in mitigating forest fires, it is not a comprehensive solution and must be approached with caution and consideration of its broader impacts.

On the other hand, it is crucial to understand the science of nature. While we often attempt to combat fire with water, we can also consider collecting rainwater on the forest floor through water holes and trenches. By collecting rainwater within the forest, we can increase moisture levels, thus preventing the spread of fires and aiding in natural species seeding. Moreover, forest areas equipped with water charging structures can rejuvenate springs and streams, addressing the looming water crisis in the mountains.

Implementing rainwater collection techniques in watershed areas or on forest surfaces can maintain high moisture levels, preventing surface fires from spreading further. Additionally, strengthening the role of local Panchayats, especially in Uttarakhand, and making them partners in forest fire prevention strategies is essential. This can only be achieved by ensuring their interests are taken into account.

It’s important to recognize that the vast areas spanning millions of hectares cannot be effectively managed solely by the forest department or government machinery. Forest-dwelling communities, such as Van Panchayats, play a crucial role as they are embedded within or around forest areas. If motivated to participate, these communities can significantly reduce or prevent forest fire incidents.

During the British period, forest fire lines were created to contain the spread of fires, but their effectiveness has diminished over time, partly due to changes in climate and global warming. Fallen litter from the forest can be utilized to make compost, which can benefit local agriculture or be sold. Additionally, exploring alternative uses for this litter, such as domestic energy sources, can contribute to local sustainability.

Traditionally, such practices were integral to the daily routines of villagers and can be enhanced with modern scientific knowledge. Ultimately, community involvement is essential in combating this menace; otherwise, recurring fire incidents will continue to deplete forests on mountains and elsewhere on Earth.

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Forest fireOpinionTDGIndia Herald