After deforestation, forest fires are the most important cause of habitat destruction. Forest fires are worldwide seasonal occurrences, and can be prevented by adequate measures; they usually occur in the dry months from March to May in India when there is no rain and dry leaves and twigs litter the forest floor. Alerts are provided by the National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad to the Central forest departments, which are then sent to the respective state forest departments.
The incident: The fire in Seshachalam was noticed by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) officials on the 18th of March in a part of their forest, though satellite images show that the fire actually broke out on the 17th. S B L Misra, the Special Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Andhra Pradesh, said that the alerts are published on the website of the State forest department and can be accessed by the forest officials. “It is difficult to say whether the alert for this particular fire was received by the concerned officials,” he said. Janik Ramaiyya, the forest ranger of TTD, said, “Sandalwood smugglers set the forest on fire in order to divert attention and the high wind velocity spread the fire far and wide.”
Consequently, the TTD officials extinguished the fire in their section of the forest; TTD has its own fire fighting squad of 30-40 members, employed as daily wage workers. According to a high placed official in the Central government, only the fire in the TTD forest was taken care of while the fire in the State forest continued to burn. By the morning of the 19th, the fire had spread to a much larger area of the State forest. The State officials contacted the Forest Department at the Centre, and by the time a crisis management group, comprising of secretary level officials from the National Disaster Relief Force, Ministry of Environment and Forest, and the Army, Navy and Air Force devised a plan, the fire had spread to the crown canopy.
A two pronged strategy was used to fight the fire. Ground forces–consisting of primarily the fire fighting personnel from the State department and the Army, were deployed to attack the fire in the lower reaches. On 20th March, two MI-17 helicopters were pressed into service to douse the fire which had reached tree tops. The helicopters undertook 20-22 sorties with water from the Papavinasham Dam, which is about 0.5 km away, with a 3000 lt specialised fire fighting bucket attached to each helicopter. This helped control the fire, but it was not extinguished. The operation continued till the 21st March, when it was finally extinguished. The quick response by the Central forces–NDRF, civil defence, armed forces–helped put out the raging fire, but the cause is currently under investigation as is the assessment of the damage.
Legal provisions: Setting a forest on fire, or even leaving a fire burning near a forest is a punishable offence according the forest protection rules of India. Sections 26, 33 and 79 of the Indian Forest Act 1927 deal with fires in reserve forests. Under its provisions, a minimum fine of Rs 500, imprisonment up to six months or both will be imposed in case a person sets fire to a reserved forest. The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 ups the ante by identifying a fine of Rs 25,000, imprisonment for a maximum of three years or both in case of fires caused in a sanctuary or reserved forest.
way forward: Considering the fact that the region is flushed with funds, Tirupathi being the most sought after religious destination of the nation, protecting mount Tirulmala’s evergreen forests should have been a cakewalk. Yet, not only were the state forces pulled into action, the central government and even the army was involved in fire dousing. The lowly terrains of Bihar’s Himalayan tract might not beget this haloed treatment; everything turning officially ‘inaccessible’ in such realms.
The protection of forests from fires is a task that can be easily ordained. First, equipment and qualified personnel can be employed for keeping the vigil—instant action can avoid time lags. There must be adequate preparedness measures for dry seasons and reliable communication and mobility mechanisms must be put in place. Setting up control rooms, which receive data from satellites and digital maps, already common in several countries, can be used to outline forest zones. Also, fire lines—artificially created gaps in the forest, which may be divided into grids of 2-2.5 km, should be created during the dry season as these are simple mechanism that can check the advance of a fire. Fire towers must be adequately manned, and controlled burning should be carried out to check forest floor litter. People around the forest boundaries can be employed through shramdaan-like schemes to regularly clear the fire lines. Fire lines when cleared of the undergrowth can double up as forest roads. Moreover, equipment like fire beaters to control minor fires and JCBs to cut the branches to restrict the spread of the fire must be made available. The dense areas of the forest which cannot be reached on ground can be identified as ‘maximum damage areas’. Forest fires can also be prevented by restricting the entry of common public during the dry season and watch towers manned to have an unobstructed view. And, all of these can be enabled, atleast for this region, by the TTD.