Experts believe that long dry periods, especially during winter and the pre-monsoon period, caused by increased warming, is a significant factor for more fires.
The annual mean temperature in India has increased by 1.2 degree Celsius since the beginning of the 20th century, according to an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an environment research advocacy.
Drier spells conducive for fires
“Climate change is increasing dryness,” Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of CSE, told IndiaSpend. “Most forest fires happen when the moisture is low in the soil and atmosphere, which leads to dry combustible material on the forest floor.”
The CSE analysis shows that 13 out of the 15 warmest years were during the past 15 years (2002-2016).
The last decade (2001-2010/ 2007-2016) was also the warmest on record, Down to Earth reported on June 5, 2017.
In three of four seasons (or nine months in a year), the temperature in India has already increased by more than 1.5 degree Celsius since the beginning of the 20th century, according to CSE analysis of temperature data from 1901 to 2017.
India will breach the aspirational target set in the Paris Agreement–plan to limit global warming below 2 degree Celsius –within the next two decades due to the rate of increase in temperature since 1995, the analysis added.
India loses about Rs 5.5 billion every year because of damages due to forest fires, Hindustan Times reported on February 13, 2018. At Rs 56 billion, floods cause 10 times as much financial damage each year.
The warming and increase in forest fires create a vicious cycle. “When vegetation burns, the resulting release of stored carbon increases global warming,” noted this 2015 report by the National Institute of Disaster Management, a government agency to help states prevent and prepare for disasters. “More fires, more carbon dioxide released, more warming… and more warming, more fires.”
More than 90 per cent of forest fires are caused by human beings, deliberately (for personal gains or rivalry) or due to negligence or accident, it added.
“Global climate change has emerged as a major driver of ecosystem change,” noted this 2013 study by researchers Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Robert John and Shijo Joseph on decadal‐scale trends , seasonal cycles of vegetation greenness [foliage or leaves on a tree] and climate data between 1982-2006 for 47 mountain-protected areas in five biodiversity hotspots.
“We found that the relationship between vegetation and temperature weakened over time or was negative. Such loss of positive temperature sensitivity has been documented in other regions as a response to temperature-induced moisture stress,” it added.
“It would be wrong to assume that due to temperature increase and warming, in seasonally cold regions such as the Himalayas, trees would respond positively in terms of the greenness,” Jagdish Krishnaswamy, co-author of the 2013 study, and a senior fellow, Suri Sehgal Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), told IndiaSpend.
“On the contrary, we’ve found that vegetation has been stressed due to increased temperature during peak summers, especially if there is a long dry spell through winter and spring.”
The temperature during the winter (December-February) of 2016-17 was the warmest in India’s recorded history with mean temperatures being 2.95 degree Celsius higher than the baseline considered between 1901-1930, and the winter mean temperature was 2 degree Celsius warmer than the beginning of the 20th century, Down To Earth reported on June 5, 2017.
Fires are dependent on aspects such as forest biomass and moisture in the system during the fire season. Fires in India are often set off by humans for various reasons, according to Krishnaswamy of ATREE. “During a particularly dry summer, there will be more fires like it happened in Uttarakhand some years ago. This is a function of how dry is the winter,” he said.
Fires swept more than 4,500 hectares (ha)–or 1.3 times the size of Shimla city–of forest in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh since April 7, 2016. This is 40 per cent more than the 3,185 ha burnt in Uttarakhand since February 2, 2016, IndiaSpend reported on May 11, 2016.
“Winter rains are very crucial. Although the reasons cannot just be attributed to climate change, a long dry summer is a factor. Overall warming due to climate variability enhances changes of fires,” Krishnaswamy said.
During 1990-2011, the worst wildfires occurred in Uttarakhand in 1995, when 375,000 ha were burnt, followed by the Ganga-Yamuna watershed area (1999, 80,000 ha), Himachal Pradesh (2010, 19,109 ha), and two fires in Maharashtra in 2008 and 2010 that affected some 10,000 ha, the 2012 report said.
March-May is the peak fire season for most states, The Indian Express reported on May 3, 2016.
Pine needles in pine forests found in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are highly inflammable due to high resin content and environmentalists have been asking for removal of pine needles in the fire-prone season, indiaclimatedialogue.net reported on April 4, 2018.
Like pine forests, eucalyptus trees are also susceptible to fires due to their oil content, said Bhushan from CSE.
While states such as Uttarakhand have seen major forest fires, the northeast has recorded an increased number of incidents over the six-year period to 2017.
Northeastern states vulnerable to forest fires
The north-eastern states of Mizoram and Assam have repeatedly featured among the top five states with the most forest fires in six years to 2017, according to data shared in the Parliament. Meghalaya and Manipur are the other states from the region to record high number of forest fires during the period.
“It may be seen that the north-eastern states have almost double the number of fire incidents annually compared to central states though the area under forest cover is comparatively less in the north-east region vis-a-vis central India,” according to the India State of the Forest Survey, 2017.
“However, it may be seen that ratio of forests to total geographic area is much higher in the north-eastern states compared other regions followed by central and southern states.”
Lakshadweep (90.3 per cent), Mizoram (86.3 per cent) and Arunachal Pradesh (79.9 per cent) have the most land covered by forests in India, FactChecker reported on July 4, 2018.
“When we speak to communities in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, they say that the precipitation [rainfall and snowfall] patterns have changed in the last two decades,” Girish Jathar, assistant director of climate change and Himalaya programme at Bombay Natural History Society, a wildlife research organisation, told IndiaSpend. “It has drastically reduced and they believe that winters are not as harsh as before. It is in fact much warmer.”
Incidents in Arunachal Pradesh doubled to 733 in two years till 2017 and Sikkim increased 2.6 times to 8 incidents during the same period, according to the government reply to the Parliament.
Government funds for forest protection declined
Despite a 125 per cent increase in forest fires between 2015-17, funds released to states and union territories for forest protection measures declined 21 per cent to Rs 345 million.
The earlier intensification of forest management scheme (IFMS) was replaced with the forest fire prevention and management (FPM) scheme in 2017.
The Centre’s share for union territories is 100 per cent, 90 per cent for northeastern states, and 60 per cent for other states, according to the ministry of environment, forest, and climate change guidelines.
There is a need to maintain the integrity of the landscape as development in these regions is cross-cutting ecosystems, according to Jathar of BNHS. Decisions by the governments should be decentralised and involve the community, he added.
(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)