India joins other countries in tackling forest fires

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Fire has been a part of India’s landscape since time immemorial. Every year, forest fires rage through nearly every state, ravaging more than half of India’s districts. Today, with growing populations in and around the forests, these fires are putting more lives and property at risk.  Indian Space Research Organization estimates that in 2014 alone, nearly 49,000 of forests - larger than the size of Haryana – were burned during the peak fire months of February to May. And, this was a mild year compared to the recent past! 


But, forest fires can also be beneficial. They play a vital role in maintaining healthy forests, recycling nutrients, helping trees to regenerate, removing invasive weeds and lantana, and maintaining habitat for some wildlife.  Occasional fires can also keep down fuel loads that feed larger, more destructive conflagrations.  However, as populations and demands on forest resources grow, the cycle of fires has spun out of balance, and the fires no longer sustain forest health.  In fact, in many countries, wildfires are burning larger areas, and fire seasons are growing longer due to a warming climate. 

Forest fires extract a huge toll on India’s economy and society.  One oft-cited figure by the former Deputy Inspector General of Forests, V.K. Bahuguna, places the annual damage at around Rs 440 crore. But as Mr. Bahuguna notes, this does not take into account losses to biodiversity, soils, carbon, and other forest goods and services that are valuable to people’s livelihoods and wellbeing.  The full costs are likely much larger.

All in all, preventing and managing forest fires will be indispensable for expanding India’s forest cover and improving forest health to meet the country’s goal of creating an additional sink of 2.5 billion to 3.0 billion tons worth of CO2 stored in its forests by 2030.  

 Narender Singh Rathore
REDD+ Project Area, Mawphlang block (Meghalaya) Photo Credit: Narender Singh Rathore
Although much is being done by India to tackle the challenge of managing forest fires, the country can benefit from the experience of other nations, and also share its own good practices with them.  An international workshop is therefore being organized in New Delhi by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, together with the World Bank, as part of the technical assistance project, India Forest Fire Prevention and Management. At the workshop, experts from seven [1] countries will share their experiences and discuss possible solutions with forest department officials, scientists, and other stakeholders from India. 

The 3-day workshop, which commences on 1 st November, will span issues ranging from the prevention of forest fires, to their detection and suppression, and subsequent forest recovery. With large areas of India’s forests now subject to burning on an annual or semi-annual basis, the discussions should indeed prove useful. 

Read other blogs from this workshop here.
[1] Australia, Belarus, Canada, Italy (FAO), Mexico, Nepal, and United States

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