At first glance, it is a beautiful sight after nightfall! A staggering line snaking up a forested hill with flames flickering and leaping up slowly. You can barely see the smoke that curls up! However, below this vista lies a tale of doom for innumerable flora and fauna that perish in the greedy forest fire. Ground-dwelling fauna and flora like pangolins, snakes, mongoose, jungle fowl, frogs, and monitor lizards cannot flee and simply perish.
Many seeds and seedlings are burnt to ashes and never sprout or regenerate. The smoke clouds the sky and is a major climate-changing factor since it is carbon emission. Even the new plantations done by the department are engulfed.
I had the unfortunate chance to chance upon such blazing forests in Boudh, Kandhamal districts last week and learned first hand what was happening on the ground. Locals informed me that nobody had attended the fires from the forest department though they were burning for 2-3 days. At another spot, the forest beat house was just below the hill and yet no squad had gone to douse the flames.
I was surprised to see vast patches of roadside forests with good metalled roads being burnt to ashes though they were easily accessible by vehicle within 10 to 15 minutes from the fire squad base. In the past, I had demanded accountability of the local staff for such failure since crores were being spent on fire control. But nothing happened.
I had also encouraged volunteers in some districts to report forest fires to local Range Officers/Forester a few years ago. They did this but were fobbed off by lame excuses. When the tip was passed on to higher officials at state HQ by me my volunteers were threatened by the staff. Under such a terrible system which villager will give fire information?
At many places, we found the fire squad people diverted for nurseries or engaged in digging pits for plantations, or for anti-poaching night patrols. When they should be resting and on standby they were being made to slog through there were separate budgets for engaging workers for other activities. Actually, nobody knows how many of the 3,000-odd squad claimed to be engaged by the department are deployed for actual firefighting.
Without going into detailed statistics let me tell the story of Forest Fires in Odisha. It is common knowledge that we have become the No. 1 state in forest fire incidents. The state government has no way to refute the data (unlike the tiger census) as it is satellite driven and supported by countless systems including satellites run by foreign nations. Every day Forest Survey of India (FSI) sends forest fire alerts to all states (at least twice) including the GPS locations. The state forest department is expected to take firefighting measures.
The British after their arrival in India started managing our vast forests for its timber wealth. They did not want to lose this wealth to fires and hence prepared a protocol to address forest fires. Vulnerable forest blocks were identified and listed in the Working Plans and all Divisions were expected to have specific action plans to fight forest fires. This system continued after 1947 too and even now some of the prescriptions like fire lane bush clearing is still practiced in the state.
A fire lane is a strip of narrow forest area that is cleared of all undergrowth and trees to stop a fire from spreading. Without fuel, no fire can last. So the idea is to starve the fire so that it burns out. In deciduous forests (trees that have leaf fall) the dry leaf litter is tinder for fire and unless there are showers they are easily inflammable.
Forest fires are manmade except in the very rare case of a lightning strike which can also set a dry forest on fire. We need to understand this clearly. Hence, it is for man to control this fire, not the Gods.
There are four man-made causes in Odisha….
1) Poaching by local villagers who carry out the annual summer mass hunt that is rampant in almost all districts of the state
2) Kendu leaf collectors often cut old bushes and set them on fire to bring out a fresh flush of tender leaves that have a good market.
3) Mahua flower collectors need clean dry ground below the tree to collect the flowers. Hence, they burn the dry leaves to achieve this.
4) Honey collectors often use fire to scare off the bees and dump the burning branch after work which sets off the forest on fire.
The forest department is aware of these four causes and this has been elaborated in their SOP for forest fire control that is circulated to all Divisions for preparation.
Now let us take the first case of poachers lighting up the forest. Why do they do this? To force the wildlife to emerge from cover and run into a demarcated valley or gully where they can easily shoot them with guns or arrows. In my opinion, at least 75 % of forest fires are caused by them.
The second case of Kendu collectors is ironically done by the other branch of the department which is the Kendu Leaf Wing. However, due to persistent outcry from forest lovers and the media, this is not the case anymore and I would say not more than 2% of the forest fires could be due to them.
However, the third reason, Mahua flower collection is an important reason and I would say at least 20 % of the fires are due to this. They burn the leaves and return home leaving the fire unattended. The fire easily spreads to the adjacent forest since most Mahua trees are right inside the forest or just next to them.
The fourth reason in my experience is around 3 % of the total cause as the groups of honey collectors like Malhar, Mankadia, and Khadia have dwindled in the state. They are expert tree climbers and use a blazing fire branch that smokes the bees away. However, once the hive is broken off and brought down they simply leave without extinguishing the fire. This spreads to the forest.
What went wrong in our state?
The key to a forest firefight is the golden two-hour rule! If you don’t attend to the fire within 2 hours it goes out of control and after 5 to 6 hours it is an inferno if the right mix of dry bamboo, leaves, and bushes are there. Almost impossible to approach without a fire suit since the temperature can jump up to 800 deg Centigrade! At several forest fire sites, I could not go more than 70 feet near the blaze.
So how do we manage the golden two-hour rule? The forest department has engaged 3,000 forest fire squad members this year but they are not present in every village. They are located at beat or sections. Each squad would cover an area of 15 - 30 sq. km. When there are simultaneous fires at several locations in one area how does one squad reach?
This year SHGs have been roped in to fight forest fires. I do not know who thought about this idea. Only a person who has never gone near a forest fire can think of engaging women without fire suits to fight a forest blaze given the inhospitable terrain and nighttime operation. Usually, the squads wait till sundown to attempt dousing the fire as day operations can often result in sunstroke.
Task Force Report remains a secret!
After the 2021 Simlipal forest fires followed by state-wide forest officers, the Odisha forest department got a rap from the Centre and was forced to set up a Task Force comprised of retired forest officials and some environmentalists. Sadly the selected non-govt. persons though otherwise well qualified lacked adequate knowledge or experience of forest fires. Conservationists who were vocal about the issue with vast experience were ignored by the state. You can imagine what kind of report would have been produced. The report was submitted sometime in June 2021 but is yet to be made public.
So we will never know what happened in the 2021 fires. What were the findings and what were the recommendations? Why does the state government set up a Task Force if the report is meant to be a secret? My guess is that they are scared that if the recommendations are known, the department will be in a spot for failing to implement them in 2023.
Without the massive support of the local community, it is next to impossible to address forest fires. So far this is missing. In the past, some officers did make an effort to reward local communities if they prevented forest fires in their respective areas. However, many groups informed us that the promised reward never came their way and they lost motivation and interest.
The department never holds a state-level stakeholder meeting with NGOs, wildlifers to discuss the plan and ways to fight forest fires. There is no fixing of accountability of forest officers for failure to fight fires on the roadside where access is easy. At the end of every season, there should be a report on each Division about the points reported and how much was destroyed and how much forest was saved, and how much money was spent.
Suggested steps :
1) Safety Equipment: Adequate safety equipment by way of fireproof boots, helmets, gloves, and a personal torch need to be provided to each firefighter squad member.
2) Fire jacket: Each fire squad member should also be given a bright orange sleeveless jacket with the words: 'Fire squad- Forest department,' clearly imprinted in Odia. This will ensure their easy identification if they are diverted for other duties like nursery and plantation. They should wear this jacket always whenever on duty and if any inspecting officer (DFO/RCCF/ACF) finds them without such a jacket, the local Forester/RO should face proceedings.
3) Fitting out of Fire Vehicle: Every fire squad of 10 members is also provided with a vehicle to ensure mobility. This vehicle should be equipped with a first aid kit for burns, a siren, 50 liters of drinking water in a jar apart from an air blower to blow dry leaves.
This vehicle should have a GPS to track its use and the waypoints should be downloaded and sent to the Fire Control Room at the PCCF office where they could be superimposed on a map in a spacio-temporal field so that analysis could be made of their area of coverage as well as timings.
There are instances of fire vehicles being diverted for the personal use of some staff. To prevent misuse, the vehicle should also have a flex banner fixed at all times to indicate it as a Fire Squad Vehicle.
4) Training: We have seen that the fire squad members are not trained firefighters and often get injured in the process. The department picks up raw recruits from local villages and just puts them on the squad without any orientation or training. A budget has to be set aside for a three-day training at the local district fire brigade HQ. The Fire Brigade may be requested to impart training on how to handle fires.
5) Villagers support: The VSS groups or the Gram Sabhas also need to be actively involved. A small incentive of Rs. 10,000 may be paid to the Gram Sabha that successfully fights fires locally and ensures that their nearby forest is fire free for the season.
6) NTFP /kendu leaf collectors: Local meetings also need to be conducted by the forest staff in each village to clear the fallen leaf litter, they can sweep it together into one heap and light a controlled fire which does not spread.
7) Monitoring of fires within 2-3 km of Kendu Phadi: We have seen a direct link between the frequency and occurrence of forest fires with kendu phadis. The Kendu leaf phadi in charge should be held responsible for any fires within a radius of 2-3 km. Most kendu leaf collectors set fire to the kendu bushes for getting fresh regeneration leaves.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author is a conservationist and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)