(Down to Earth: Natural Disasters)
Feb 18: Wildfires will be more frequent, larger and intense due to climate change: UNEP
- GS-1: Geographical phenomena
- GS-3: Climate Change
Wildfires will be more frequent, larger and intense due to climate change: UNEP
In News: Wildfires are predicted to worsen in the coming years and decades, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned in its annual Frontiers report.
- It is also called forest, bush or vegetation fire.
- It is any uncontrolled burning of plants in a natural setting such as a forest, grassland which consumes the natural fuels and spreads based on wind, topography.
- These can be incited by human actions, such as land clearing, extreme drought or in rare cases by lightning.
- Three conditions needed for a wildfire:
- oxygen, and
- a heat source.
- Globally, forest fires release billions of tons of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
- The trends towards more dangerous fire-weather conditions are likely to increase due to rising concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases and the attendant escalation of wildfire risk factors.
What causes forest fires?
- There has been a rapid expansion of cities towards forest areas in many regions in recent decades. This wild land-urban interface is the area where wildfire risks are most pronounced.
- Extreme weather events such as hotter temperatures and more droughts lead to longer fire seasons and increase the likelihood of fire weather condition
- Emerging studies link climate change to rising instances of fires globally, especially the massive fires of the Amazon forests in Brazil and in Australia in the last two years.
- Fires of longer duration, increasing intensity, higher frequency and highly inflammable nature are all being linked to climate change.
- In Odisha, which saw a major fire recently in Simlipal forest, villagers are known to set dry leaves to fire in order to collect mahua flowers, which go into preparation of a local drink.
- Lightning and pollution
- With rising forest fires, the world is very likely to see more frequent incidences of lightning
- Lightning strikes are projected to increase in frequency in some parts of the world as the climate changes. Lightning ignition is the predominant driver of massive wildfires in the boreal forests of North America and northern Siberia.
- Fire-induced thunderstorms are a new danger posed by rising wildfires.
Why are forest fires difficult to control?
- Difficult Terrain: The locality of the forest and access to it pose hurdles in initiating firefighting efforts.
- Manpower Shortage: During peak season, shortage of staff is another challenge in dispatching firefighting teams. Timely mobilisation of forest staff, fuel and equipment, depending on the type of fire, through the thick forests remain challenges.
- Outdated Techniques: As it is impossible to transport heavy vehicles loaded with water into the thick forests, a majority of fire dousing is initiated manually, using blowers and similar devices. But there have been incidents when forest fires were brought under control using helicopter services.
- Weather Factors: Wind speed and direction play a critical role in bringing a forest fire under control. The fire often spreads in the direction of the winds and towards higher elevations
What are the fuels of such massive fires?
- The dry leaf litter on the forest ground acts as a ready fuel. Fallen tree leaves, dry grass, weeds, low brushwood, deadwood on the forest floor, logs and stumps etc form the surface fuels.
- Below the loose litter, decaying materials such as humus, wood, shrubs, roots, much and peat can also support the combustion.
- Above the surface level, dry standing trees, mosses, lichens, dry epiphytic or parasitic plants, and fallen branches trapped in the understorey can spread the fire to the upper foliage and the tree crowns.
What factors make forest fires a concern?
- Forest’s role in mitigation and adaptation to climate change: They act as a sink, reservoir and source of carbon. A healthy forest stores and sequesters more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem.
- Endangers Livelihood of people and animals: Forest fires may also impact the wildlife by burning eggs, killing young animals and driving the adult animals away from their safe haven. In India, with 1.70 lakh villages in close proximity to forests (Census 2011), the livelihood of several crores of people is dependent on fuelwood, bamboo, fodder, and small timber.
- Impacts regeneration capacity of Ecosystem: Forest fires can have multiple adverse effects on the forest cover, soil, tree growth, vegetation, and the overall flora and fauna. Fires render several hectares of forest useless and leave behind ash, making it unfit for any vegetation growth.
- Shrinkage of Forests: Heat generated during the fire destroys animal habitats. Soil quality decreases with the alteration in their compositions. Soil moisture and fertility, too, is affected. Thus forests can shrink in size. The trees that survive fire often remain stunted and growth is severely affected.
- Impact on Water system: Forests help maintain aquifers and continuous flow of streams and springs, and provide firewood, fodder and non-timber produce to the local communities – all these capacities may get adversely affected in case of a fire.
- Impact on Soil Productivity: Forest fires may destroy organic matter in the soil and expose the top layer to erosion thus negatively impacting soil fertility & productivity.
- Impact on Air: Wildfires are also responsible for air pollution. There is a link between impact of wildfire-related pollution and human deaths, according to a global study published in September 2021.
What can be done to prevent and control forest fires – The Way Forward?
A preventive approach, rather than reactive approach by engaging vulnerable groups, will help adapt to the wildfires.
- Improved Policies: Wildfire prevention, response and management calls for improved planning and policies coupled with practices.
- Enhanced capabilities: It is important to enhance fire-fighting capabilities and strengthen community resilience-building programmes.
- Appreciating and adopting indigenous fire management techniques
- Focus on remote-sensing capabilities such as satellites, ground-based radar, lightning detection as well as data handling
- Getting rid of forest fire fuels: Clearing camping sites of dried biomass. Early burning of dry litter on the forest floor
- Changing Composition of Forest: Growing strips of fire-hardy plant species within the forest
- Defensive Mechanism: Creating fire lines in the forests (fire lines are strips in the forest kept clear of vegetation to prevent the fire from spreading).
- Better Predictions: Forecasting fire-prone days using meteorological data will help control forest fires at early stages. Focus on long-range weather forecasting.
- Dedicated Force: Once a fire starts, early detection and quick action by fire-fighting squads is crucial. For such activities, the state forest department has a fire protection and fire control unit.
- Regulation of Forest activities: In 1999, the state government notified forest fire rules which restrict or regulate certain activities in and around forest areas such as lighting a fire, burning agricultural stubble or undergrowth (ghasnis) and stacking inflammable forest produce such as dried leaves and firewood.
Can you answer the following questions?
- Why are certain forests more susceptible to fires? How do local weather patterns add to this susceptibility? Explain.
- What is the strategy to mitigate bushfires/ forest fires? Discuss.