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Spotting fires from space helps India’s foresters

E. Vikram's picture
 Vikas Gusain (April 2017)
Almost all fires in India are set by people intentionally or unintentionally. Ground fire in Chir Pine forests in Gumkhal, Pauri Garwal District, Uttarakhand, India. Credit: Vikas Gusain (April 2017)

The three-day international workshop on forest fires organized by the World Bank and the Forest Ministry of India is a watershed event in the management of forest fires in the country (1-3rd November 2017). On the first day, discussions were held on the latest technology being used to alert foresters to fires.

Almost all fires in India are set by people intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, forest-dependent communities in central India burn the forest floor to encourage the growth of tender tendu leaves, and to collect mahua flowers which standout easily on the charred forest floor.

In the northeast and some parts of central India, forests are rotationally burnt to ashes to enrich the soil for agriculture. After a few seasons of cropping, the depleted area is left to nature and the trees grow back once again. In the western Himalayas, pine needles are cleared every year to encourage the growth of grass for cattle-fodder. When pine needles full of resin pile up year after year, it takes just one spark from a careless smoker to burn down an entire forest of enormous value.

In remote areas, forest fires may not be detected for hours or even days, leading to an irreversible loss of forest wealth. Like any other hazard, the earlier one gets to know about the outbreak, the better it is for both the authorities and the people. Since traditional ways of gathering information from people perched on watch towers are not very effective, satellite sensors that can detect heat and smoke from space have now come to the rescue of foresters across the country.   

Today, the Forest Survey of India, in partnership with the National Remote Sensing Centre, uses these satellite detections to alert foresters across the country about the exact location of forest fires. All steps in the detection and dissemination process have been fully automated – including the processing of satellite data, filtering out fires that burn outside forests, composing personalized SMSs to relevant people, as well as sending them across. This system has helped fire alerts to reach people within 45 minutes to 1 hour of detection, enabling foresters to reach the spot quickly and contain the damage.

The workshop also discussed issues such as the need for developing algorithms to suit different terrains, reducing data outages, and improving coordination between the Centre and States. Some priority areas were identified for the future. These include the use of information from sensors on geostationary platforms, the development of mobile applications for better user experience, and the need to encourage more and more foresters to use this fire alert information.

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