Unravelling the escalating forest fire crisis in Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand's wildfire wake-up call (Image: Pickpic)
Uttarakhand's wildfire wake-up call (Image: Pickpic)
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Uttarakhand is grappling with devastating forest fires, with adverse effects rippling across various aspects of life in the region. Raging wildfires have tragically claimed five lives over the past few days. The forest department's report on May 5, 2024, documented 24 forest fire incidents damaging approximately 23.75 hectares of land. Since November 2023, Uttarakhand has witnessed 868 fire incidents resulting in the destruction of over 1,000 hectares of forest land. According to the forest fire bulletin cited by PTI, Kumaon has accounted for 456 incidents, while Garhwal has reported 344. Furthermore, authorities have documented 351 cases linked to "man-made" forest fires, involving 59 identified individuals and 290 unnamed suspects.

According to data from the Forest Survey of India (FSI), Uttarakhand has witnessed the highest number of significant forest fires in the nation during the seven days leading up to April 28. During this period, the Himalayan state reported 325 major forest fire incidents, surpassing Odisha (196), Chhattisgarh (148), Madhya Pradesh (105), and Jharkhand (79). Additionally, Uttarakhand recorded the highest number of fire alerts nationwide, totalling 4,543, during the same period. This was followed by Odisha (2,981), Chhattisgarh (2,527), Jharkhand (1,420), and Madhya Pradesh (105), as per FSI data cited by Hindustan Times.

In the Garhwal region, efforts to contain the fires are underway, with DM Pauri Garhwal reporting six active fire spots and the successful control of a major blaze after nearly nine days. Legal actions have been taken against perpetrators, including the arrest of individuals responsible for igniting fires. Three men were apprehended in Chamoli district for allegedly starting a forest fire in Gairsain area and circulating footage of the act on social media to gain popularity.

In response to the escalating crisis, Chief Minister Dhami imposed a ban on burning fodder and solid waste to mitigate further damage. The severity of the situation is underscored by the efforts of NDRF personnel who are tirelessly battling the flames in Nainital district. As the inferno continues to ravage Uttarakhand's landscapes and lives, authorities stress the gravity of the situation, urging the public to refrain from activities that could exacerbate the crisis. Children and the elderly in the vicinity of Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, are experiencing health issues as a result of the forest fires. Consequently, residents are being urged to wear masks when venturing outdoors.

Unravelling the complexity of forest fires in Uttarakhand

Ecological dynamics and fire regime shifts

In Uttarakhand, the intricate interplay between ecological dynamics and fire regime shifts profoundly influences the state's forest ecosystems. Traditionally, these ecosystems have evolved under natural fire regimes, where periodic low-intensity fires played a crucial role in ecosystem renewal, nutrient cycling, and species diversity maintenance. However, contemporary changes in land use, forest management practices, and climatic conditions have disrupted these historical fire regimes, leading to significant ecological consequences.

One critical aspect of ecological dynamics in Uttarakhand is the composition and structure of its forest vegetation. The state's forests encompass a diverse range of habitats, including montane, sub-alpine, and alpine ecosystems, each characterised by distinct vegetation types. Coniferous forests dominated by species like Chir Pine (Pinus roxburghii) and Deodar (Cedrus deodara) are prevalent in lower elevations, while mixed broadleaf-coniferous forests and alpine meadows are found at higher altitudes. These diverse ecosystems support a rich array of flora and fauna, contributing to the region's ecological richness and biodiversity.

However, the introduction of non-native plant species, such as Lantana camara and Eucalyptus sp., as well as changes in land-use patterns, including deforestation, encroachment, and monoculture plantations, have altered the composition and structure of Uttarakhand's forests. The proliferation of highly flammable species like Chir Pine, which are prone to crown fires and create dense, uniform stands, increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Moreover, the suppression of natural disturbances, such as fire and grazing, disrupts ecosystem processes, leading to the accumulation of fuel loads and changes in vegetation dynamics.

These ecological changes have profound implications for fire regimes in Uttarakhand. Fire regimes, characterised by the frequency, intensity, and spatial distribution of fires, are dynamic processes shaped by ecological, climatic, and anthropogenic factors. Historically, natural fires played a crucial role in shaping forest structure and composition, maintaining ecosystem resilience, and promoting biodiversity. However, the suppression of natural fires, coupled with human-induced ignitions and landscape alterations, has led to significant shifts in fire regimes.

Contemporary fire regimes in Uttarakhand are characterised by an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires, driven by a combination of ecological and anthropogenic factors. Climate change exacerbates fire risks by altering precipitation patterns, increasing temperatures, and prolonging fire seasons, creating conditions conducive to fire ignition and spread. Moreover, land-use practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture, forest clearance, and the expansion of human settlements contribute to the ignition and spread of wildfires, particularly in interface areas where human activities intersect with forested landscapes.

Recommendation: To address the challenges posed by changing ecological dynamics and fire regime shifts in Uttarakhand, integrated approaches that combine ecological restoration, sustainable land management, community engagement, and climate adaptation are essential. Restoring ecological resilience, promoting biodiversity conservation, and enhancing community resilience to wildfires require holistic strategies that address underlying drivers while fostering adaptive governance and participatory decision-making processes.

Anthropogenic drivers and land-use practices

Anthropogenic drivers and land-use practices significantly contribute to the incidence and severity of forest fires in Uttarakhand.

Historically, traditional land-use practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture, locally known as "jhoom" cultivation, have been prevalent in Uttarakhand and other parts of the Himalayan region. While these practices are often sustainable when practiced judiciously, they can escalate into uncontrolled wildfires under unfavourable conditions. A significant proportion of forest fires in Uttarakhand are ignited intentionally for agricultural purposes, particularly in hill areas where communities depend on subsistence farming.

The expansion of agricultural land, driven by population growth, economic pressures, and changing land-use patterns, encroaches upon forested areas and increases the risk of accidental fire ignitions. Satellite imagery and land-cover change analyses reveal a gradual conversion of forested landscapes into agricultural fields, particularly in the foothills and valleys of Uttarakhand. The proximity of agricultural activities to forested areas heightens the likelihood of fire spread, especially during the dry season when vegetation is susceptible to ignition.

Illegal forest clearance and encroachment for timber extraction, infrastructure development, and human settlements further exacerbate the vulnerability of Uttarakhand's forests to wildfires. Unauthorised land clearing and encroachment within protected areas and reserve forests not only degrade forest ecosystems but also create conditions conducive to fire propagation by altering vegetation structure, increasing fuel loads, and disrupting ecological processes.

The booming tourism industry in Uttarakhand, particularly in popular destinations such as Nainital, Mussoorie, and Jim Corbett National Park, attracts millions of visitors annually. While tourism contributes to the state's economy, unregulated recreational activities such as campfires, barbecues, and littering pose significant fire risks, especially during the dry season.

Rapid urbanisation, infrastructure development, and expansion of road networks increase human presence in forested landscapes and escalate fire risks. There has been a steady influx of people into urban centers and peri-urban areas, leading to the proliferation of human settlements in fire-prone zones. The proximity of residential areas, commercial establishments, and critical infrastructure to forested landscapes heightens the vulnerability of communities to wildfires and complicates firefighting and evacuation efforts.

Recommendation: Addressing the anthropogenic drivers and land-use practices contributing to Uttarakhand's forest fires requires a multi-faceted approach that integrates sustainable land management, community-based fire prevention strategies, enforcement of forest laws, and public awareness campaigns. By understanding the socio-economic dynamics and environmental pressures driving wildfires, policymakers, stakeholders, and local communities can collaborate to mitigate fire risks, protect forest ecosystems, and promote resilient landscapes in Uttarakhand.

Policy, governance, and institutional challenges

Effective wildfire management requires robust governance frameworks, institutional capacities, and policy interventions. In Uttarakhand, challenges such as fragmented jurisdictional responsibilities, inadequate firefighting infrastructure, limited resources for prevention and suppression, and governance gaps hinder wildfire mitigation efforts.

Weak enforcement of forest laws, regulatory loopholes, corruption, and bureaucratic inefficiencies undermine conservation efforts and community-based initiatives. Moreover, the lack of participatory decision-making processes, insufficient stakeholder engagement, and marginalised community voices perpetuate vulnerabilities and hinder adaptive responses to changing fire regimes.

Addressing the underlying drivers of escalating forest fires in Uttarakhand demands a multidisciplinary approach integrating ecological restoration, climate adaptation, sustainable land management, community resilience building, and governance reforms. Enhancing scientific understanding of fire ecology, investing in early warning systems, promoting community-based fire management practices, strengthening legal and institutional frameworks, and fostering transdisciplinary collaborations are essential for fostering adaptive governance, enhancing ecosystem resilience, and securing sustainable livelihoods in fire-prone landscapes.

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Post By: Amita Bhaduri