Fire has been a part of India’s landscape since time
immemorial and can play a vital role in healthy
forests, recycling nutrients, helping tree species
regenerate, removing invasive weeds and pathogens,
and maintaining habitat for some wildlife. Occasional
fires can also keep down fuel loads that feed larger,
more destructive conflagrations, but as populations
and demands on forest resources have grown, the
cycle of fire has spun out of balance.
- India is not alone in facing this challenge. Forest fires have become an issue of global concern. In many other countries, wildfires are burning larger areas, and fire seasons are growing longer due to a warming climate.
- About 670,000 km2 of forest land are burned each year on average (about 2 percent of the world’s forested areas, releasing billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere,1 while hundreds of thousands of people are believed to die due to illnesses caused by exposure to smoke from forest fires and other landscape fires.
Tackling forest fires is even more imperative in India as the country has set ambitious policy goals for improving the sustainability of its forests.
- As part of the National Mission for Green India under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, the government has committed to increase forest and tree cover by 5 million hectares and to improve the quality of forest on another 5 million hectares.
- Relatedly, under its NDC, India has committed to bringing 33 percent of its geographical area under forest cover and to create additional sinks of 2.5 billion to 3 billion tons worth of CO2 stored in its forests by 2030.
Yet, it is unclear whether India can achieve these goals if the prevention and management of forest fires is not improved. Field-verified data on the extent and severity of fires are lacking and understanding of the longer-term impacts of forest fires on the health of India’s forests remains weak.
The objective of this assessment is to strengthen knowledge on forest fires by documenting current management systems, identifying gaps in implementation, and making recommendations on how these systems can be improved.
Gaps in the FFPM
1. Forest fires in India are both widespread and concentrated
- Every year, forest fires occur in around half of the country’s 647 districts and in nearly all the states. Furthermore, by one estimate, in 2014 alone, nearly 49,000 km2 of forests – an area larger than the size of Haryana – were burned . Yet, though fires are spread throughout the country, they occur much more frequently and affect forest more in some districts than in others. Just 20 districts, representing 3 percent of the India’s land area and 16 percent of the country’s forest cover in 2000, accounted for 44 percent of all forest fire detections from 2003 to 2016.
- While states in the Northeast account for the greatest share of fire detections, the largest area affected by fire is in the Central region. Districts with the highest frequency of fire and largest extent of fire-affected areas present priorities for intervention and should be the focus of improving FFPM, as should areas of significant ecological, cultural, or economic value. Data from 2014, for example, showed that about 10 percent of forest cover in protected areas was affected by fire.
2. Fire potential and behavior is shaped by a
combination of natural and social factors
- In India’s seasonally dry forests, most forest fires are characterized by low-intensity surface fires. The potential for more intense and difficult-to-control fires is shaped by a complex dynamic involving the monsoon rains, weather during the winter and early part of the dry season, and fuel accumulation.
- Weather, fuels, and topography may influence fire potential and behavior, but virtually all forest fires in India, as in other parts of the world, are caused by people.
- Many of the important goods and services that people obtain from forests, such as fodder for their livestock, are generated or gathered through the aid of fire.
- Unwanted forest fires may also occur due to human negligence, for example, from casually discarded cigarettes or from poor control of burning on adjacent croplands.
- Shifting societal and cultural practices also play a role, as with the use of fire in traditional shifting cultivation (jhum). In some parts of the country, the erosion of traditional community institutions for managing forest lands has also contributed to more unwanted forest fires.
3. The longer-term impacts and wider costs of forest
fires are still poorly understood
- The longer-term impacts of the current pattern of forest fires on India’s forest ecology and the wider economy are still poorly understood; however, the available scientific evidence supports that fires are having a degrading effect.
- Repeated fires in short succession are reducing species richness and harming natural regeneration, in combination with other pressures such as intense grazing and browsing. Reductions in biomass, species diversity, and natural regeneration due to fire may pose a risk to policy goals for enhancing India’s forest carbon sinks. Not all fires are bad, though.
- The key is to maximize the ecological benefits of fire while minimizing the adverse impacts, recognizing that the controlled use of fire may play a positive role in the management of fire-adapted forests. Current estimates of the economic costs of forest fires in India, at around INR 1,101 crore (US$ 164 million, 2016 prices) per year, are almost certainly underestimates. Monetary damages due to forest fires are generally assessed only for the loss of standing trees (natural or planted) in terms of their timber value, which are usually minimal in the event of lowintensity surface fires such as those that commonly occur in India. Estimates could be improved by including the direct and indirect impacts on other sectors including e.g. transportation, infrastructure, loss of environmental services, etc. Without credible, empirically-based estimates of the costs of forest fires, it is unlikely that FFPM will be made more of a policy priority.
4. A vacuum exists at the level of national policy
- A cohesive policy framework with a clear strategic direction provides the foundation for successful FFPM. Though MoEFCC had issued national guidelines on FFPM in 2000, they are no longer being implemented. Without guidance and standard setting from above, there is significant variation from state to state and district to district in terms of the detail and substance on FFPM found in local policies and working plans.
- Policies and prescriptions for FFPM should be supported by adequate and predictable financing. A shortage of dedicated funding for FFPM at the central and state level has been a perennial issue, which has been documented by the Comptroller and Auditor General in various states.
- Along with a lack of public engagement, forest officers surveyed for the assessment cited insufficient equipment, labor, and financial resources as one of the main challenges for effective FFPM. Revamping the Intensification of Forest Management Scheme to focus exclusively on FFPM represents a positive development. Directing more resources specifically for FFPM will need to happen at the state level too.
5. Forest fire prevention is not being implemented
- Prevention is the most crucial link in the FFPM chain and should receive the greatest support. Prevention activities have included primarily the creation and maintenance of fire lines and controlled area burning. Only half of the forest officers surveyed in 11 states said that all the fire lines in their area were being cleared as required per the forest working plans; twothirds said controlled burning was not being regularly performed.
- Other than fire lines and controlled burning, less emphasis has been given to silvicultural practices, such as selective thinning and planting fire-adapted species. Officers commonly cited a need for greater participation by local forest-dependent communities in fire prevention.
6. India has developed robust detection systems for
- Over the past decade, India has emerged as a leading example of how satellite technologies can be utilized for the detection and monitoring of forest fires. Using satellite data, Madhya Pradesh was the first state to develop an SMS-based system to alert field staff of active fires burning in their area. Since then, Forest Survey of India (FSI) has rolled out a nationwide system.
- Satellite-based detection has helped fill a gap left by under-resourced ground detection. As these satellite systems continue to be upgraded, they would benefit from greater integration, including the increased collection of field-based reporting for verifying satellite-derived fire alerts, as well as improved data sharing between the states and FSI. Only through systematic ground verification and evaluation can the existing techniques for satellite detection be improved.
7. Well-equipped and well-trained people on the
ground are essential to forest firefighting
- Forest fire suppression in India mainly involves dryland firefighting. Although the tools used in India may differ from those used in other countries, the principle of effective suppression remains the same: having a competent, well-trained, and adequately equipped workforce on the ground, ready to respond and take immediate action. This workforce includes field staff from the forest department as well as seasonally-employed fire watchers and volunteers from the local community.
- Lack of basic safety gear and clothing, and a need for more training, especially for firewatchers and community volunteers.
8. Post-fire management is not being treated as part
of the FFPM process
- Post-fire management is not being treated as part of the FFPM process and is probably the weakest link. Post-fire data collection is an essential part of the fire management process and crucial to producing informed FFPM plans and policies. However, this part of the management process is given little priority and is often performed solely for the sake of fulfilling administrative requirements.
- Field reporting and the investigation of fire causes may be hindered by insufficient field staff, difficult terrain, and a lack of communications infrastructure in more remote areas. A lack of standard protocols for collecting and reporting information on fires, including their causes, has made it impossible to aggregate data across states.
- The greater issue, though, are the institutional disincentives for accurate and complete reporting. Fires larger than a few hectares trigger extra work for field staff to report and investigate offenses, and the department and its officers may be held responsible for reported monetary damages due to fires. The states will need help from MoEFCC and the research community in developing standard methods and protocols for assessing ecological impacts and economic damages from fire.
9. More effective engagement of forest-using
communities is essential…
- More effective engagement of local communities—the primary forest users in India—is essential. Strategies for FFPM should be founded on a clear recognition of how local communities depend on forests for important goods and services and aim to ensure the delivery of these goods and services while also reducing damaging and unmanaged fires.
- Although all forest fires are treated as an offense under existing laws, completely excluding the use of fires in forests by local people is an unattainable goal. Thus, the SFDs must strike a fine balance, working with communities to make sure fire is used responsibly in a way that promotes forest health, while avoid damaging and out-of-control fires.
- Existing incentives have included monetary rewards, the provision of jobs to community members, and access to harvest NTFPs from state forests. The Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) have been the primary avenue through which the SFDs have offered such incentives. Monetary payments have not typically been enough to cover the costs of fire prevention work by the JFMCs but rather have served as a behavioral nudge. Seasonal firewatchers and community volunteers are rarely provided equipment and training for FFPM.
10. Coordination with other agencies and
- The SFDs manage about 654,137 km2 of forest lands contained in reserved and protected forests, plus much of the 113,881 km2 of unclassed forest. Together, these lands comprise about 23 percent of India’s geographical area (FSI 2018).
- Not all these areas are forest covered, and additional areas of forest cover exist outside the jurisdiction of the departments. In practice, the SFDs often assume sole responsibility for forest fires on these non-department lands, often managed by communities. National data on the forest fires on non-department lands is lacking, though data from Uttarakhand show that these lands accounted for about 35 percent of state-wide burnt forest area in 2016.
- The threat of fire on non-SFD lands is nontrivial, and fires started outside state forests may spread to state forests. Better coordination with communities and other forest land managers and more clearly defined responsibilities (including for the provision of funds) are needed.
- Though large fires such as those observed in Uttarakhand in 2016 and Karnataka in 2017 do occur, forest fires are not typically treated as disasters, and the disaster management authorities have so far played a minor role in FFPM. A survey of the state disaster management agencies (SDMAs) revealed a wide variation in how forest fires are treated in disaster planning and how institutional mechanisms have been set up for organizing the response to large or destructive fires.
- Researchers have been an underutilized part of the FFPM community. Stronger collaboration between the SFDs and research entities would enable states to better monitor the ecological and economic impacts of fires, to develop robust protocols for gathering fire data, and innovate new science-based management approaches for preventing fires and rehabilitating fire-affected areas.
- In all the states visited and surveyed, forest departments have developed innovative ways to improve FFPM. From forest firefighting squads in Odisha, to fire risk zonation mapping in Telangana, to SMS-based fire alerts in Madhya Pradesh, to community reserves in Meghalaya, to awareness-raising street performers in Uttarakhand, and so on, the examples abound. However, states are often unaware of what their neighbors are doing, data and statistics are difficult to aggregate across states, and there is no formal mechanism for sharing knowledge about FFPM.
Recommendations for effective FFPM
- At the national level, a cohesive first-order policy or action plan can set forth the guiding principles and framework for FFPM, beginning with a clear statement of goals and priorities
- A national action plan would also provide MoEFCC an opportunity to
- consolidate its existing guidelines and the standing instructions it has issued over the years, and to
- issue comprehensive guidelines for a range of topics, including for the development of standard operating procedures (SOPs) by the states for various aspects of FFPM,
- for siting and maintenance of fire lines and controlled burning, standard protocols for post-fire reporting, and standard methods for assessment of damages.
- The national policy should also draw on climate change policies given the clear overlap.
- A national level policy should also clearly delineate the respective roles and responsibilities of the MoEFCC, state forest departments, and disaster agencies, and establish a mechanism for the provision of regular funding for FFPM to the states. The process of formulating the national policy or action plan on FFPM would be just as important as the policy or plan itself. The process should be open, consultative, clearly defined, and time-bound.
2. Staffing, capacity, and management practices
- Inadequate resources and lack of sufficient staff on the ground have been cited repeatedly as reasons for ineffective prevention, detection, suppression, and post-fire practices. Even with the advent of new remote sensing technologies, ground-based detection will continue to be essential.
- Greater funding for construction of watchtowers and crew stations and for frontline officers and seasonal firewatchers to spot fires is needed, as most of the areas surveyed reported shortfalls and field officers reported frequent delays in making payments to seasonal firewatchers.
- People on the ground are the key to effective fire suppression using dry techniques. In spite of the availability of hi-tech equipment globally, the principal need is always to have a competent, trained, and equipped workforce on the ground, ready to respond and take immediate action. Therefore, a top priority for SFDs is to fill vacancies for field staff and community firewatchers.
- Additionally, their staff need to be trained, and this activity too should begin immediately. The type of training provided to firefighters should be tailored according to their level of responsibility and role in the command structure in responding to fires. Provision of training should extend beyond state-managed forests to community institutions in regions such as the Northeast, where communities are responsible for managing most of the forest estate.
- There is a need for more systematic use of silvicultural practices such as selective thinning, pruning, and early season controlled burning to reduce fuel loads, in areas managed by the forest department and those managed by other entities. SOPs can highlight where they should be applied, how local communities should be involved, and what measures should be put in place to ensure that they are conducted safely.
- Similarly, underreporting post-fires of causes, extent of burnt area, and economic damages needs to be addressed.
Technologies available for improving FFPM range from the very high-tech to the very low-tech, from new satellite and wireless sensor technologies for detecting forest fires, to self-fashioned jhapas for beating out fires.
- FSI has begun the development of systems for early warning and fire danger rating, and these efforts should be continued. For one, the digitization of management boundaries by the state forest departments should be completed so that FSI can more accurately determine which fires to report and to whom.
- Additionally, ground verification data on satellite-based alerts should be collected by field staff, shared with FSI by the state forest departments, and analyzed, to determine the accuracy of satellite-based alerts and thereby help improve the system. Fire alert systems can also be improved by integrating groundbased detection with the satellite-based alert systems.
- Finally, the satellite-based detection systems should be expanded to include other forest areas beyond department jurisdiction.
- Whether high-tech or low-tech, effective tools and technologies must satisfy local financial, social, and environmental constraints. Rather than prescribing specific fire-suppression tools to use in all the states, MoEFCC can promote the use of new technologies for FFPM by supporting local research, encouraging states to experiment, and scaling up best practices, where appropriate. International experience has shown that early warning and fire danger rating systems developed with inputs from local fire managers and tailored to local conditions are more likely to be successful than systems that are imported directly from other contexts.
4. Community engagement
- Some fires can be beneficial, both from an ecological and social point of view. There exists a fundamental tension between the total prohibition on fire under current law in India and the reality on the ground, as fire continues to be used as a landscape management tool by communities of forest users across the country.
- A more effective policy for FFPM may begin with the recognition that people will continue to use fire, that some fire is desired, and that the goal of FFPM should be to minimize the ecological, social, and economic impacts of fire while ensuring that the benefits reaped from fire may continue.
- From this starting point, fire managers may then work with communities to ensure that fire is used responsibly in a way that promotes forest health, while seeking to avoid damaging and out-of-control fires.
- If effective community involvement is to be garnered, it is essential to work with communities and give them a voice in the decision-making process.
- Existing incentives to attract local communities are inadequate hence, stronger incentives may include securing forest tenure, resource rights, and sharing revenues from commercial products such as teak, sal, and bamboo, where allowable.
5. Data and information
Lastly, there is a need to support forest fire management through improved data, research to fill critical knowledge gaps, and regular knowledge exchange.The database should also capture information on fire lines, controlled burning, watch towers, firefighting assets (and their locations), and communications infrastructure.
- Such a database would be instrumental for assessing longer-term trends across states and regions and for planning fire prevention and response.
- India’s research community represents an invaluable asset for improving FFPM, though little formal cooperation currently exists between members of the research community and the forest department. The definition of a national research agenda for forest fires and provision of funding opportunities for scientific research would be instrumental in bringing these entities together.
- India could, however, benefit from the development of a mechanism to allow useful exchange between states. There is real need for a suitable forum where state representatives can regularly meet and swap ideas and information. Presently, each state forest department seems to operate in isolation from others. There are excellent initiatives developed by individual states that could easily be transferred to and adopted by other states. A formal mechanism for knowledge sharing between states should be established.