Firefighting in forests

  • 14/07/1995

Many questions about the theories and practices of the Indian forestry establishment have blazed forth in the wake of the fires that spread throughout the forests of Garhwal and Kumaon last month. Nearly all them may be hidden in the clouds of false smoke that are being released by the forest department of Uttar Pradesh as well as the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF).

To begin with, it has blamed people living in and around forests for either causing conflagrations in many places or for refusing to help local forestry staff in combating the fires. This allegation is yet another manifestation of one of the most ardent and asinine beliefs of the Indian forestry establishment -- that forest-dependent humans are singularly the biggest source of trouble in the jungles. This belief has been used this time to cast the blanket of blame on people across the length and breadth of the UP hills. Simply because it is a pernicious denial of truth and reality, this bunkum must be rejected outright.

The truth is that the bulk of the population in this region still depends on the forests for providing energy, food and sustenance in a myriad ways. There is just no way in which the local populace can have a flagrant attitude towards forests. Admittedly, they have suffered much as their access to local forests and forest-based resources has been steadily denied under the guise of modern, scientific forest management principles. This has led to considerable alienation, exemplified by tales of villagers refusing to help the foresters. But this situation should actually call for a much harder look at practices that have led to such alienation, and their reversal.

Escaping the need for this, the forestry establishment has already called for much higher financial allocations which would be ostensibly used for recruiting more staff and more machines. Significantly, senior foresters have pointed to this strategy as the only effective way to restrict forest fires. As part of the same thinking, district level forest officials have already begun to blame their own failings on the inadequacy of rangers and patrol personnel as well as the lack of transport and communications equipment. A false trail, again.

There has been no official explanation about the inefficacy of the modern, specialised Rs 7 crore forest fire establishment that was set up at Haldwani just a decade ago with partial financial support through the United Nations Development Programme. It was equipped, among other things, with a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft for fire reconnaissance and detection. Through much of the early phase of the forest conflagration, these aircraft were being used elsewhere, reportedly for non-official purposes.

On its own terms, the forestry establishment must be held up to other charges of inefficiency and ineptitude as well. Despite programmes initiated long ago, procedures such as periodic fire danger ratings still continue to be loosely carried out. By monitoring and coordinating fuel accumulation, meteorological data and other site factors, these practices have enabled a reasonably accurate anticipation of forest fires in parts of the world. In India, the MEF's annual reports as well as those of its state-level counterparts, routinely boast of this ability. None of it is visible when needed.

As recent as the early decades of this century, the forests of Garhwal and Kumaon were of the mixed deciduous type. Beginning with the colonial British administrations and intensifying later in the '50s and the '60s, this region was saturated with pine trees, on the grounds that this species has a short maturation period, enabling a higher rate of timber extraction. It also allowed for several industrial applications based on pinewood resin.

Other ecological factors have been ignored. Earlier mixed forests gave local populations a wide range of fuel, fodder, food and medicines. Leaves, branches, twigs and bark pieces had a rapid turnover period. Left to themselves, such droppings, deadwood and remnants are tinder material. Pine fruit and needles have found much less community use and their annual accumulation actually renders a huge part of the UP hills every hot summer a giant tinder box waiting to be kindled.

Moreover, the rights of access, use and passage enjoyed by the local population made them natural firespotters. This early warning system is dead. Other elements of how to combat and restrict forest fires are also lost. The inhabitants of the UP hills have a well-developed tradition of restricted and light use of fire in order to nurture and protect forests. Used this way, pyro-knowledge is a way to regenerate soil, ease biotic pressure and sustain forest management. Today, Garhwalis and Kumaonis are forced to burn useless pine deposits in order to uncover fodder and pasture areas.

Stretched across the entire stretch of the Garhwal and UP hills, the recent fire have lit up, as never before, the ignorance and shortsightedness of India's forestry establishment.

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