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Uttarakhand's Battle Against Forest Fires

Climate change exacerbates the conditions conducive to forest fires in several ways.

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Nainital, nestled in the serene landscapes of Uttarakhand, India, finds itself engulfed in a battle against raging forest fires, consuming swathes of precious greenery totalling approximately 108 hectares. Recent reports from the state forest department reveal a staggering tally of 26 forest fire incidents within the Kumaon region over the past 25 hours, with an additional five incidents ravaging the Garhwal region, leaving 34.175 hectares charred in their wake.

As the forest fires wreak havoc, the firefighters battle against time to quench the flames. The conflagration, spanning eight districts, has prompted a concerted effort involving various agencies, including the Indian Air Force (IAF), to combat the inferno. Since November 2023, the region has been grappling with over 600 fire outbreaks, with the latest surge intensifying since 20 April 2024.

According to recent assessments, the extent of the wildfire, as depicted by remote sensing data from NASA's  Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS), has expanded over an area exceeding 48,738.29 square kilometres. Alarming figures from the Forest Survey of India reveal a sharp escalation in fire incidents, with Nainital bearing the brunt of the blaze alongside other districts like Almora, Chamoli, and Pauri Garhwal.

The response to this crisis has been multi-pronged, with the Uttarakhand government mobilising resources from various quarters, including the IAF, Home Guard, and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). The deployment of IAF choppers equipped with Bambi buckets underscores the situation's urgency. These aerial firefighting operations, facilitated by the MI-17 helicopters, involve precision water drops over the affected areas, with over 4000 litres dispensed in a single flight.

The efficacy of such measures lies in their ability to deliver water to the heart of the fire swiftly, leveraging the helicopters' manoeuvrability and capacity. However, the blaze's intensity underscores the challenges firefighters face, exacerbated by adverse weather conditions and the rugged terrain characteristic of the region.

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What Causes Forest Fires? Should We Blame Climate Change?

A combination of natural and human factors primarily causes forest fires. Natural causes include lightning strikes and dry weather conditions. However, human activities significantly trigger forest fires, making them more frequent and severe. These activities include careless smoking, arson, agricultural practices like slash-and-burn farming, improper disposal of flammable materials, and accidental ignition from machinery or power lines.

The relationship between forest fires and climate change is complex and interrelated. Climate change leads to warmer temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns, creating drier conditions and increasing the likelihood of fires. Rising temperatures also result in more frequent and prolonged heatwaves, which contribute to the dryness of vegetation and the ignition of fires.

Additionally, climate change affects the health and resilience of forests. It weakens trees, making them more susceptible to diseases and insect infestations, increasing dead and dry vegetation, and fuelling fires.

Forest fires, in turn, exacerbate climate change. They release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect and further warming the planet. Moreover, the loss of forest cover reduces carbon sequestration, perpetuating the cycle of climate change.

The forest fire in Nainital is attributed to the heightened dryness exacerbated by a heatwave in Champawat and Nainital districts bordering Nepal. Indeed, scanty winter rainfall and snow in the Himalayas since September 2023 have compounded the vulnerability of Uttarakhand's forests to wildfires. Typically occurring between February and June, forest fires in the region are fuelled by dry leaves, pine needles, and other combustible substances that are abundant in the forest terrain.

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Fanning the Flames of Uttarakhand's Forest Fires

Climate change exacerbates the conditions conducive to forest fires in several ways. Rising temperatures and prolonged periods of drought create tinderbox landscapes where even the slightest spark can ignite a catastrophic blaze. The frequency and intensity of heatwaves have surged in recent years, further desiccating forests and amplifying the risk of ignition.

Moreover, altered precipitation patterns disrupt the delicate moisture balance in forest ecosystems. Reduced rainfall and erratic weather events leave forests parched and vulnerable. At the same time, intense rainstorms, when they do occur, can lead to increased growth of vegetation that subsequently dries out, providing ample fuel for fires.

The correlation between climate change and forest fires is not confined to Uttarakhand alone. Globally, wildfires are becoming more frequent, severe, and widespread, exacting a toll on ecosystems, livelihoods, and human health. From the Amazon rainforest to the Australian bushlands, the fingerprints of climate change are evident in the charred landscapes left behind by unrelenting flames.

Addressing the root causes of forest fires necessitates a holistic approach that integrates climate adaptation and mitigation measures. First and foremost, urgent action is needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming. Transitioning to renewable energy sources, enhancing energy efficiency, and adopting sustainable land-use practices are imperative steps in this direction. Investing in wildfire prevention and management strategies is essential to safeguarding communities and ecosystems. This includes bolstering early warning systems, improving firefighting infrastructure, and promoting community engagement in fire prevention efforts.

Proactive measures play a pivotal role in mitigating the risk of forest fires. The Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change advocates for the construction of watch towers for early detection, deployment of fire watchers, and community involvement in fire prevention efforts. Furthermore, adopting practices such as creating fire lines and conducting awareness programs are imperative steps in bolstering the resilience of forest ecosystems against wildfires.

The Indian Air Force's deployment of a Mi-17 V5 helicopter equipped with a Bambi bucket, capable of carrying 5,000 litres of water, to douse flames in Nainital and surrounding areas exemplifies the collaborative efforts underway to contain the infernos. The Bambi bucket, suspended beneath the helicopter, facilitates swift water replenishment from rivers or ponds, enabling firefighters to target and extinguish the flames effectively.

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Protecting Uttarakhand's Forests: A Call to Action

As Uttarakhand grapples with the recurrent menace of forest fires, it is evident that a paradigm shift in approach is imperative to safeguard the region's ecological heritage. The recent spate of wildfires underscores the urgent need for proactive policies and collective action to mitigate the devastating impact of these infernos on our forests, wildlife, and communities.

Climate change is a formidable driver of forest fires, exacerbating conditions conducive to ignition and spread. To address this underlying threat, policymakers must prioritise implementing sustainable land management practices. Regulations mandating controlled burns and vegetation management can effectively reduce the accumulation of flammable materials in forested areas, mitigating the risk of wildfires and enhancing ecosystem resilience.

Yet, combating forest fires requires more than environmental stewardship. It demands heightened vigilance and public awareness. From unattended campfires to deliberate acts of arson, human activities remain a primary ignition source for wildfires.

Comprehensive public awareness campaigns are essential to educate communities about the dangers of forest fires and promote responsible behaviour in forested areas. By empowering individuals to recognise and report potential fire hazards, we can curtail the incidence of wildfires and protect our forests for future generations.

Furthermore, enforcement efforts must be strengthened to deter illegal activities that fuel forest fires. Enhanced collaboration between government agencies, local communities, and stakeholders is essential to effectively coordinate wildfire prevention and response efforts. By fostering a culture of compliance and collaboration, we can address the root causes of forest fires and ensure a unified approach to wildfire management.

As the battle against the blaze rages on, the preservation of Uttarakhand's natural heritage hangs in the balance. From leveraging technological advancements in firefighting to fostering community resilience, our response to forest fires must be comprehensive and proactive. Only through sustained collective action can we fortify our forests against the ravages of wildfires, preserving their splendour for generations to come. It is time for policymakers, communities, and individuals alike to heed this call to action and stand united in defence of Uttarakhand's forests.

[Anjal Prakash is a Clinical Associate Professor (Research) at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business (ISB). He teaches sustainability at ISB and contributes to IPCC reports. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.]

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Topics:  Uttarakhand 

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