This article is written by Shivali Srivastava from National Law University, Odisha and edited by Gitika Jain. In this article, I have analysed the upsurge in forest fires in different countries as well as in India.
Table of Contents
Forest fires in many parts of the world are a result of natural occurrences that cumulatively give rise to the ablation of forests. In such instances, they could have positive effects on impacted forests, for example, cone trees release their seeds to form into new trees only when they are subjected to intense fire. But this process does not pose an alarming effect on the forest rather possesses positive and medicinal effects on these woodlands, an example of which can be a few trees like the cone or the pines that automatically start to germinate after being exposed to high temperatures or extreme heat. But this is not the case always, as the fast-spreading fire can do more harm than good.
Causes and effects
The first and the most primary cause of forest fires is human beings.
Majorly, the forest ablaze is due to human carelessness while smoking. A worldwide study of smoking-related fire by epidemiologists reports that smoking is the leading cause of fires and deaths globally. The report further states that these fires resulted in an estimated cost of $27.2 billion globally in 1998. Smokers, in a lot of instances, leave the cigarette buds without extinguishing them completely.
Lots of people tend to think of burning debris as the first option when they pile up. But in a few instances, these fires start to spread and overwhelm the individuals and lead to massive fire outbreaks. Some governments have stepped in to mitigate the situation by requiring individuals to obtain burn permits before combusting any debris.
Arson experts have shown that arsonists cause frequent fires and that it contributes nearly 30 percent to wildfire incidents. As an outcome, arson has a drastic impact on the likelihood of wildfires and could only be stopped if people refrain from perverse conduct of this nature. Appropriate authorities should be notified immediately as and when they observe acts of arson.
Around 10 percent of all wildfires account for natural causes. Just two primary natural causes are lightning and volcanic eruptions.
Wildfires can be triggered by lightning, particularly the form of lightning called “hot lightning,” which can last very long. It can create a spark when it strikes, that can set off a forest or field. A lightning strike can produce a spark. Sometimes the lightning can strike power cables, trees, or rocks and any other thing and this can trigger off a fire.
In a volcanic eruption, molten magma in crusts of the earth is typically erupted out as lava. Instead, the hot lava flows into surrounding fields or lands to begin wildfires.
Effects of Forest fires
Degradation of forest areas
If forest fires occur, thousands of acres of trees are burned out, and vegetation cover. Forest fires are observed almost every year across various forest regions that persistently decrease the quality of certain forest features such as soil fertility, biodiversity and ecosystems.
Negative impact on the environment
Vegetation may be affected greatly. Wildfires often kill plants on the forest floor or smaller trees while larger trees may live as long as the fire does not spread into the canopy of the tree. For plants and trees that can survive the flames, they are susceptible to disease, fungus, and insects due to their decreased resistance following burn injuries.
A threat to human lives
Buildings and houses along the wildfire route are burned, exposing toxic materials that create a danger to public health for front line workers and throughout the process of cleaning up. Older homes that were constructed before the 1970s also have a mineral called asbestos. Once asbestos is disturbed, the fibres become airborne and when inhaled can lead to the development of pleural mesothelioma in the lining of the lungs.
Recent instances of forest fire around the world
The Amazon rainforest, which is often referred to as the Earth’s lungs, covers an area of about 5.7 million square kilometres which constitutes for three-quarters of the entire area of mainland Australia. Amazon rainforest in Brazil has seen a major rise in this year’s number of fires, new data from the space agency show. The National Space Research Institute (INPE) said it showed an 84 percent rise over the same time in 2018, just weeks after President Jair Bolsonaro sacked the agency’s head in the midst of disputes over his results on deforestation.
It was decried as a disaster internationally. Started by farmers, the fires raged through cities, forests were devastated and climate-warming pollutants poured into the atmosphere. The Brazilian government, blamed for rolling back Amazon’s security, sent the army and imposed a temporary fire ban for clearing the ground.
The bushfires in Australia are the worst in the recorded history of the world. In the last two months, massive fires in southern Australia have blazed more than 6 million hectares of mostly eucalyptus forest, killing at least 24 people and more than a billion animals. Open AQ air quality data shows PM 2.5 concentrations in the first six days of January from three sensors in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, totalling 438 micrograms per cubic metre. 250 micrograms are considered harmful to human health, as a guide. On New Year’s Day, the maximum concentration was 792 micrograms per cubic metre. The regulatory authority alerted the Australian government. The wildfire had displaced over 80000 people in only a month. Australia had witnessed massive destruction financially as well as ecologically. The toll that the forest fire had taken on Australia was a huge blow for the native species that are exclusively found in Australia.
Apart from the Australian and the Amazon wildlife fires, there have been instances all around the world that have had a devastating impact on biodiversity and has resulted in a magnanimous loss of native species. Siberian fires had been declared as the century’s worst fire outbreaks last year by the environmental campaign Greenpeace. The size of the massive cloud of smoke is estimated to be the size of small European countries combined. Russian agencies had stated that approximately over 10,000 hectares have been turned into ashes.
Indian regulatory and prevention authorities
Fire in the forestland has been a part of India for aeons and has played an irreplaceable and an indispensable part in the ecosystem. From replenishing nutrients in the soil, regenerating new species and helping them grow to aid in maintaining a healthy forest life for all the kinds of flora and fauna. But fires only have positive effects till the time are occasional and not spun out of balance. And these out of proportion forest fires are not exclusive to India. It has indeed become a global concern. Just after independence, the government endeavoured to look into the forest disaster management and work for the conservation of the same. The first move in this direction was the creation of the National Forest Policy in 1952, when the former Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Government of India, declared a Forest Policy for State Forest Management in India. The Indian Constitution in Directive Principle of State Policy [Article 48(A] and fundamental duty [51(A)(g)] provides for the conservation of forests and wildlife under the Forest Policy.
Fighting forest fires is even more essential in India and it has set ambitious policy objectives for the enhancement of its forest sustainability. As part of National Mission for Green India under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, the government has committed to increasing forest and tree cover by 5 million hectares and to improving forest quality on another 5 million hectares. To fulfil the National Forest Policies aim of achieving 110 hectares of forest cover, the Government had to strengthen the country’s forest fire management policies too. It started formulating comprehensive and result-oriented programmes and initiatives to overcome the age-old issue of forest fires. Thus it started taking assistance from international environmental organisations like FAO for the Technical Cooperation Programme(TCP). This study began in May 1995 till December 1995. Furthermore, in 2003 the Indian version of US’s Incident Command System(ICS) was adopted which was looked into by the National Disaster Management Authority(NDMA).
Keeping in view the severity of forest fire, the existing organizational structure, the Forest Protection Division, headed by Inspector General (IG) level officer looks after the forest fire management work at National level with the cooperation of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Disaster Management (NDM) Division of Government of India, National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), International organizations like FAO, Forest Survey of India (FSI), Forest Research Institute (FRI) and other regional offices of MoEF in the country. The Ministry of Environment and Forests(MoEF) has six regional offices in the country acting as coordinating offices with the state forest departments. The forest fire control activities are looked at the State level after standard forestry staff, who are still overburdened. It’ll be advisable if a separate department or a subsidiary of the department is established at the headquarters of the state forest directed by the Chief Conservator of Forest level officer.
Policies and laws to prevent forest fires
Forest fires have created havoc in different countries varying from Australia to California to Siberia and the list goes on. While it disrupted the normal working of humans, claimed their lives and gave them serious troubles, this is considered as a payback to them for intervening in the ecological balance of forests. Humans are considered to be responsible for maximum forest fires in the world. Therefore, it becomes quite crucial to keep a check on human activity. For the same reason, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had a draft to make provisions for managing the forest fires in the country with the National forest policy 2018. It’s principle act being the one passed in the year 1988.
India’s Ministry of the Environment has revealed a draft of the new National Forest Policy proposing to limit policies and programs that conflict with forests covering sharp slopes, river catchments, lakes and reservoirs, geologically vulnerable terrain and other ecologically critical areas. The draft legislation includes steps to protect habitats from forest fires, including:
- Charting and surveying vulnerable areas;
- Strengthening and developing early detection systems;
- Remote Fire Detection technology; and
- Enhanced Public engagement.
Numerous initiatives have been adopted to enhance forest fire management. Data is to be extracted via satellite and Fire Danger Rating System has been adopted and included in the policy to develop, strengthen and increase the efficacy of the Early Warning Fire Detection System. Forest Survey of India (FSI) works toward this Rating System in collaboration with the National Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF). The Dehradun-based Forest Research Institute (FRI) is also actively engaged in the project to analyze the vegetation and microclimate and the impacts of forest fire on them.
We cannot stress less on the inevitably of forests in the lives of human beings. It is imperative that we find strategies for maintaining the forest in a sustainable way, with all the benefits it can offer. Few countries have all the answers to all the problems faced, so international cooperation is needed. Loss of forest resources transcends national borders and affects the planet as a whole. In light of this, the roles of different agencies become vital to minimize any potential downside and maximize the upside.
Especially the global concern of wildfires across the globe. Wildfire will continue to affect the quality of the source water resulting in increased costs for care, repair and service. Forest and watershed managers and water sources, therefore, need to be well informed about wildfire impacts in order to establish mitigation plans to create water resource resistance to wildfire. They will collect detailed information about the extent and timing of post-fire impacts, proposed approaches to be thoroughly formulated and implemented. The bottom line, however, is that wildfire impacts should be integrated into regular forest watershed and water source preparation, safety, and operations.
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