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Unraveling the Manmade Catastrophe of Forest Fires

Forest fires have been increasing during the last decade all over the world. The incidence of forest fires is increasing year by year in India also among many other countries. Massive patches of forest lands and biodiversity including animal, bird, insect, and reptile species at the forest floor, branches, and at other higher locations are destroyed due to the forest fires. 95% of all forest fires are caused due to human interference with ulterior motives or negligence like throwing the burning cigarette butts on the ground. 

Global news on forest fires

  • In France, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, blazes destroy thousands of hectares of land.
  • It is the second heat wave engulfing parts of southwest Europe in weeks. Scientists blame climate change and predict more frequent and intense episodes of extreme weather such as heat waves and drought.

Types of forest fires

There are three basic types of fires:

  1. Crown fires
  • This type burn trees up their entire length to the top.
  • They burn through the canopy, spreading from treetop to treetop.
  • These are the most intense and dangerous forest fires as they are very difficult to contain.
  • It needs strong winds, steep slopes, and a heavy fuel load to continue burning.
  1. Surface fires
  • They burn only surface litter like dried leaves, twigs, and grasses.
  • These are the easiest fires to put out and cause the least damage to the forest.
  • Parched grass or fallen leaves often fuel surface fires.
  1. Ground fires
  • These are sometimes called underground or subsurface fires.
  • They occur in deep accumulations of humus, peat, and similar dead vegetation that become dry enough to burn.
  • These fires move very slowly but can become difficult to fully put out, or suppress.
  • Ground fires can smolder for a long time, even an entire season, until conditions are right for them to grow to a surface or crown fire.
  • Underground fires spread slowly and are hard to detect, hence they may burn for months destroying the vegetative cover of soil.

Odisha has recorded the highest number of forest fires during 2022. In Odisha, Surface fires are more common vis-à-vis the Crown fires as witnessed in Australia. Even developed countries like Australia are finding it extremely challenging to control forest fires, in spite of having all the technical equipment and trained person power. 

Wildfires are a natural occurrence within some forest ecosystems, but in a few years, the fires are becoming more extreme and widespread. Hotter and drier weather caused by climate change and poor land management create conditions favorable for frequent, larger, and high-intensity forest fires. The fire in the Amazon rainforest during 2019-21 razed millions of acres of the world’s largest tropical forest.

The importance of wildfire prevention is best illustrated with overwhelming statistics. According to the US Forest Service, nearly 7.5 million acres are lost to wildfires across the United States yearly, with a risk of damage to every state. Sadly, the anthropogenic factor is by far the main culprit of the catastrophic losses, which demands various wildfire prevention strategies. Among the numerous strategies of how to prevent wildfires from spreading, the most effective one is never to let it happen. Forest fire prevention and control are possible with effective agricultural and forest management plans, alongside public awareness, responsibility and concern.

Forest Fires in India

Big Forest Fire
Big Forest Fire

India has also witnessed several episodes of wildfires in recent times very recently Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have had major wildfire breakouts. Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tripura, Mizoram, and Odisha also report frequent forest fires annually. Mizoram has had the highest number of wildfire incidences in the last two decades, with more than 95% of its districts being forest fire hotspots.

In the Indian context, the causes of fire are a combination of natural and manmade:

  • Natural causes such as lightning or rubbing of dry bamboo with each other can sometimes result in fires, but forest officials maintain that almost all forest fires can be attributed to human factors.
  • Setting up a temporary hearth to cook food by the herdsman and minor forest produce gatherer may leave behind a smoldering fire which can develop into a forest fire.
  • Also, when people burn their fields to clear them of stubble, dry grass or undergrowth, the fire sometimes spreads to the adjoining forest.
  • A spark can also be produced when dry pine needles or leaves fall on an electric pole.

Causes of forest fires

  • Natural causes like lightning can set fires on trees which may be spread by wind. Sometimes, high atmospheric temperatures and dryness (low humidity) offer favorable circumstances for a fire to start.
  • Man-made causes are usually the ones that become dangerous. Fire is caused when a source of fire like naked flame, cigarette, electric spark, or any source of ignition comes into contact with inflammable material.
  • Other human-led causes are land clearing and other agricultural activities, maintenance of grasslands for livestock management, extraction of non-wood forest products, industrial development, resettlement, hunting, negligence, and arson.

Consequences of Wildfires

Yellow biohazard sign installed in scorched field with burnt anthills
Yellow biohazard sign installed in scorched field with burnt anthills
  • Wildfires emit billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which causes harm to climate and living organisms.
  • This can also impact the carbon cycle due to excess COand loss of vegetation.
  • High-intensity forest fires destroy flora and fauna.
  • Wildfires can impact the economy as many families and communities depend on the forest for food, fodder, and fuel.
  • It burns down the small shrubs and grasses, leading to landslides and soil erosion.
  • It can change the microclimate of the area with unhealthy living conditions
  • Excessive forest fires can also add to the ozone layer depletion process.

Methods of controlling fires

1. Application of Water

This is the best method of extinguishing fire but not applicable where water is not available in sufficient quantity. Whenever, possible water may be used for putting out burning or glowing stumps and trees, after the fire has been brought under control in order to prevent their acting as fresh sources of fire.

2. Application of Earth

When earth is applied to burning material it cuts off the oxygen supply and also lowers the temperature below combustion point there by extinguishing the fire. Care should be taken to dig below the humus layer till mineral soil free from organic matter is reached and this soil should be applied.

3. Suppression of fire with chemical extinguishants

Suppressing forest fires with extinguishants is a complex physicochemical. The stoppage of combustion in forest fires after the action of chemical extinguishants on them is achieved due to:

  • Cooling of the combustion zone to the temperature at which combustion cannot continue.
  • Isolation of the combustibles from atmospheric oxygen by a layer of gases which prevent combustion and also the formation on its surface of a hard or liquid film.
  • Formation with the combustible of stable chemical compounds obstructing the entry of atmospheric oxygen.
  • Interruption of combustion reaction in the flame phase 
  • Conversion of various substances in to coal obstructing the entry of

For effective suppression of fire at the edge, creation of fire-retardant belts and supporting line for starting a back fire, aqueous solutions of inorganic salts are used e.g. calcium and magnesium chloride, ammonium sulfate, and diammonium phosphate etc.

Other methods to control forest fires

1. Beating Out

Where neither water nor earth is readily available the method of beating out may be employed. The advancing edge of fire is struck glancing bellows with a suitable tool. The action should be side-ways and inward towards the burnt area as though one were trying to push the fire in vertical bellows are dangerous as they will have the effect of scattering burning sparks and will only help to spread the fire.

Suitable glancing stroke have a threshold action. They set up a strong local breeze which puts out the new flames at the outer most edge. When delivered they cut off the oxygen supply temporarily. They blow or carry the burning material inwards where it can do no harm. Unskilled strokes may only serve to fan flames.

The advantage of this method lies in the fact that suitable tools can be readily improvised in the forest. Brooms somewhat fan-shaped can be made out of leafy branches, fire rakes, fire swatter, shovels and other tools can be used. This method is most suitable for putting out grass firs, and other surface burning in the litter.

2. Back Firing

The purpose of backfiring is to create a controlled strip of burned forest ahead of the fire front, directed towards it. This strategy aims to deprive the advancing fire of combustible material, causing it to extinguish upon reaching the previously burned area. Backfiring is an indirect method of fire fighting, employed when direct methods like smothering the fire with soil or beating it out have proven unsuccessful or have little chance of success.

Backfiring is typically used when a fire is rapidly spreading, fueled by strong winds, and the flames are too intense for firefighters to approach directly. Selecting the appropriate location as a base for initiating the backfire is crucial. The fundamental principle behind backfiring is to combat fire with fire while minimizing losses.

By implementing controlled burns ahead of the fire front, the aim is to create a buffer zone that starves the main fire of fuel, helping to bring it under control and reduce its impact.

3. Post-Fire Operation

The burning under control of the fire is by no means the end of the fire fighting operations. There will be vast quantities of burning stumps, trees, branches etc; in the burnt area if they are not able to start a new fire they must be watched over and efforts should be made to put them out. Water if available or earth should be used to put out the burning material. The work of the fighting is not over till the last vestige of a spark has died out of the burnt area.

4. Fire-maps

It is useful to maintain an accurate record of all firs occurring in the forest. Every case of fire should be marked to scale on fire-map and numbered. The dates of fires should also be shown on the maps.

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Firebreaks and Fire Line

A firebreak is an artificial or pre-existing barrier constructed before a fire occurs, from which most or all inflammable materials have been removed.

Types of breaks

  1. Natural breaks: Utilize existing natural features such as rivers, cracks, swamps, and areas under permanent cultivation to create barriers against fires.
  2. Existing roads, trails, and tracks: Utilize pre-existing roads, trails, and tracks as breaks. Ensure they are kept clear of inflammable materials, with particular attention to drains and culverts free from leaves and debris.
  3. Cleared firebreaks: Create complete cleared breaks, typically one to two chains in width, strategically located in key sectors. These breaks can be kept vegetation-free through methods like plowing, brushing, and, if necessary, chemical treatments.
  4. Tree cover breaks: Establish artificial green breaks using fire-resistant plant species. These breaks serve as protective borders in high-risk areas such as railway tracks and roads within forests.
  5. Fire line: A fire line is a narrow portion of a control line where inflammable materials have been removed by scraping or digging down to mineral soil. When used alongside other breaks, fire lines should be 2-4 feet wide. If used independently, wider fire lines may be necessary. The actual width will depend on available resources for construction and maintenance.

Suppression: Suppression is the final stage of fire protection operations, involving immediate action to extinguish fires as soon as they occur, minimizing their spread and damage.

Efficiency in this work relies on several factors:

  1. Early detection and prompt reporting of fires: Timely identification and immediate reporting of fires are crucial for effective response and containment measures.
  2. Adequate labor availability: Sufficient labor resources are needed to effectively manage fire prevention, firefighting, and control operations.
  3. Facilities for rapid transport: Access to efficient transportation systems enables quick deployment of firefighting teams, equipment, and necessary resources to the affected areas.

Forest fires are characterized as uncontrolled and non-prescribed combustion or burning of plants in natural environments such as forests, grasslands, brushlands, or tundra. These fires consume the natural fuels present and spread based on environmental conditions like wind and topography.

The spread of wildfires is facilitated by fuel, oxygen, and heat sources:

  • Fuel: Refers to any flammable material surrounding a fire, including trees, grasses, brush, and even structures like homes. The greater the amount of fuel available, the more intense the fire can become.
  • Oxygen: Air supplies the oxygen required for the fire to burn. Sufficient oxygen levels contribute to the sustained spread of wildfires.
  • Heat sources: Heat plays a critical role in igniting wildfires by raising the temperature of the fuel to the point of combustion. Various heat sources, such as lightning strikes or human activities, can initiate wildfires.

In natural ecosystems, particularly in forests at higher latitudes, fires play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. They release essential nutrients into the soil and aid in the dispersal of seeds. Additionally, in tropical forests, local and indigenous communities have traditionally used fire as a tool to clear land for agricultural purposes.

rests, local and indigenous communities have used fire for ages to clear land for agriculture.

Mitigation measures by the government

The country is witnessing a concerning rise in the frequency of forest fires, leading to larger areas being devastated each year. This unfortunate trend can be attributed to the slow and gradual approach taken towards addressing the issue.

Unfortunately, the country lacks both the necessary national focus and technical resources required to establish a comprehensive forest fire management program. Several crucial elements of effective forest fire management, such as strategic fire centers, coordination among Ministries, adequate funding, human resource development, fire research, and extension programs, are noticeably absent.

Given the severity of the problem, it is imperative to implement significant improvements in the country’s forest fire management strategy. Recognizing this urgency, the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change has formulated a National Master Plan for Forest Fire Control. The Forest Survey of India (FSI) is responsible for monitoring wildfire incidents. The proposed plan aims to establish a well-coordinated and integrated fire management program encompassing the following components:

  1. Prevention of human-caused fires through education and environmental modifications. This involves activities such as silviculture, engineering works, encouraging public participation, and enhancing education and enforcement efforts.
  2. Emphasizing greater involvement of the public through Joint Forest Fire Management to prevent fires.
  3. Swift detection of fires through an organized network of observation points, efficient ground patrolling, and robust communication networks.
  4. Recognizing the importance of remote sensing technology in fire detection and incorporating it into the management strategy.
  5. Development of a National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) and Fire Forecasting System to enhance successful fire management and administration.
  6. Implementing rapid initial attack measures and maintaining rigorous follow-up actions.
  7. Introducing a forest fuel modification system at strategic locations to reduce fire risks.
  8. Ensuring the availability of adequate firefighting resources to effectively combat forest fires.

By implementing these measures, the country can enhance its forest fire management capabilities and mitigate the devastating impacts of wildfires.

Key Points

In 2019, a significant expanse of 93,273 hectares fell victim to forest fires, encompassing both the combustion of trees and ground vegetation, commonly referred to as “ground fires.”

Forests hold a place in the concurrent list of the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Acknowledging the gravity of the issue, the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) undertook the development of a National Action Plan on forest fires (2018) in close collaboration with all states and Union Territories.

Moreover, the MoEF&CC facilitates forest fire prevention and management through the implementation of the Centrally Sponsored Forest Fire Prevention and Management scheme.

National Action Plan on Forest Fires (NAPFF)

Launched in 2018, the National Action Plan on Forest Fires aims to minimize the occurrence of forest fires by effectively communicating, enabling, and empowering communities residing on the fringes of forests. The plan encourages their active engagement and collaboration with State Forest Departments.

The plan emphasizes the reduction of forest vulnerability across diverse ecosystems throughout the country, mitigating the risks associated with fire hazards.

Additionally, it strives to enhance the competencies of forest personnel and institutions in fire suppression techniques, as well as expedite the recovery process following fire incidents.

Forest Fire Prevention and Management Scheme (FPM)

The Forest Fire Prevention and Management Scheme (FPM) stands as the sole centrally funded program specifically designed to assist states in effectively managing forest fires.

In 2017, the FPM replaced the Intensification of Forest Management Scheme (IFMS) and witnessed an augmented allocation of resources dedicated to forest fire-related activities.

Under the FPM, funds are allocated based on a center-state cost-sharing formula. The Northeast and Western Himalayan regions receive a funding ratio of 90:10 (central-to-state), while all other states adhere to a ratio of 60:40.

Furthermore, the scheme grants states the flexibility to allocate a portion of the funding from the National Afforestation Programme (NAP) and Mission for Green India (GIM) towards bolstering their forest fire management endeavors.

Combating the Blaze Beyond Leaf Blowers and Beating Branches

Threatening indigenous communities and a diverse range of wildlife, including tigers, elephants, and orchids, Similipal National Park has been engulfed by thousands of fires. In the challenging terrain of the park, where flames spread rapidly and consume everything in their path, women take swift action, using leafy branches to beat down the fires while sweat drips from their brows. Nearby, a forest department official armed with a leaf blower works to clear the leaves that fuel the blaze.

The fires have ravaged Asia’s second-largest biosphere reserve, Similipal, for over a month, causing extensive devastation. This fragile ecosystem is home to numerous species, including tigers, leopards, elephants, deer, wild boar, pangolins, antelopes, over 200 bird species, and around 3,000 plant species, including rare orchids and medicinal plants cherished by the indigenous Adivasi communities residing in the area’s 1,200 villages.

However, combating forest fires in Similipal presents immense challenges. The protected forests, spanning 2,150 square miles (5,570 square kilometers), feature steep and treacherous terrain, making them nearly inaccessible except by foot. Fire engines are unable to reach these remote areas, leaving state forest department officials and volunteers to rely on limited resources at hand: leaf blowers and branches.

The fires, often reaching heights of eight to ten feet, are primarily human-caused, ignited by poachers and a small number of indigenous tribes who employ flames for hunting and foraging purposes. This year’s fires in Similipal are the most severe in its history, leading many to believe that preventive measures could have averted the crisis.

Since February 11, 2023, more than 3,400 fires have been detected across all divisions of the national park, with approximately 350 occurring within the tiger reserve. While most fires have been extinguished, some continue to burn. The Odisha forest department faced criticism for being ill-prepared, and the National Tiger Conservation Authority issued warnings to tiger reserves nationwide, urging vigilance and preventive measures against similar fire incidents.

Initially, the Odisha state government displayed little interest in addressing the fires until the “Save Similipal” social media campaign gained momentum in early March. The government claims no significant loss of large trees, tigers, elephants, or human lives.

However, environmentalists argue that the fires have set Similipal back decades, devastating its biodiversity. Countless birds, snakes, lizards, monitor lizards, peacocks, pangolins, and medicinal plants have been reduced to ashes. Similipal, renowned for its 95 species of orchids, has suffered significant losses in this regard as well. While blame has been placed on the Adivasi communities, who constitute nearly 75% of the local population in Similipal’s villages, it is important to note that only a small minority are involved in poaching and the use of fire for foraging the mahua flower, utilized in the production of liquor.

The efforts of a few forest department officials face immense challenges as they are responsible for vast areas of Similipal with limited resources and personnel. However, some groups are working to bridge the gap between the state and the Adivasi communities, striving to save Similipal. Employing unique methods, they employ traditional street theater performances to spread the message among the Adivasis, educating them on how to protect their jungle home, which holds both cultural and religious significance.


  • Bamboo promotion: Capacity building and awareness generation workshops; increased emphasis on bamboo plantations, especially on farmlands; access to markets and processing units.
  • Sal seed: Development of cooperatives/ federations for better procurement; provision of storage and processing facilities and markets.
  • Mahua Seeds: R&D on the produce and its uses; development of storage, processing and market facilities; development of market linkages.
  • Mushroom: Development of cooperatives/ federations for better procurement and prices; development of market linkages for the produce; development of processing facilities.


Economic Dependence: The individuals involved in tendu plucking belong to the most impoverished segments residing in the poorest districts of Odisha. It is noteworthy that nine out of ten aspirational districts are engaged in tendu collection. This indicates a significant reliance on tendu as a source of income.

The high dependency on tendu stems from a dearth of alternative income-generating opportunities. Without viable alternatives, communities continue to rely on tendu plucking for their livelihoods.

Unfortunately, the financial returns from tendu collection are minimal. In the year 2022, each plucker earned an average wage of I2,698, highlighting the limited economic benefits associated with this activity.

It is crucial to recognize that there are several alternative options available apart from tendu plucking. Alternatives such as mahua seed, sal seed, bamboo, among others, present more promising prospects in terms of generating higher returns and improving livelihoods.

Environmental Concerns with Tendu Plucking: A significant correlation exists between the prevalence of forest fires and tendu cultivation in Odisha. This link raises concerns about the environmental impact of tendu plucking activities.

Over the period of 2011 to 2021, the estimated total burnt area resulting from forest fires in tendu regions amounts to 3,018 square kilometers. This figure emphasizes the considerable extent of forest degradation and loss attributed to tendu-related fires.

Moreover, the tendu-related fires in Odisha emitted approximately 3.8 million metric tons of CO2 in the year 2021 alone. These emissions contribute to environmental pollution and further exacerbate the adverse effects of climate change.

Considering the economic challenges and environmental implications associated with tendu plucking, it becomes imperative to explore sustainable alternatives and implement strategies that promote both the well-being of the communities and the preservation of the natural environment.

The Way Forward

  1. Strengthening Regulatory Control: It is crucial to strengthen regulatory control on the use of fire for tendu patta collection to address climate and environmental concerns.
  2. Development of Sustainable Alternatives: The way forward involves promoting and developing sustainable alternatives to tendu collection activities. Tendu collection provides short-term employment for forest-dependent communities, particularly during the lean agricultural season.
  3. Addressing Community Wellbeing: Any policy action against tendu collection should consider the wellbeing of dependent communities and create alternative livelihood opportunities. The income generated from tendu collection is low but serves as valuable supplementary income for families with limited alternative employment options.
  4. Learning from Successful Examples: Successful examples exist where communities have transitioned away from tendu collection, such as the Pachgaon village in Maharashtra that banned tendu leaves collection and developed bamboo as a key non-timber forest product (NTFP) for income generation.
  5. Exploring Untapped Potential: Odisha has untapped potential for the development of sal, mahua, chironji, kusum, bhela, and other utility and medicinal NTFPs. Conducting a detailed analysis can help identify the growth potential of these alternatives for tendu collectors.
  6. Building Market Linkages: Significant efforts and investments are required to establish market linkages and develop value-added industries to maximize the benefits for communities.
  7. Leveraging Carbon Markets: The booming carbon market can be a strong source of funding to support the transition away from tendu collection, considering the study’s findings on tendu’s significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in the low-carbon transition of communities is a priority area for carbon funds.
  8. Financial Incentives and Capacity Support: Providing financial incentives and capacity support to communities is crucial for the development and adoption of alternative livelihood options, ultimately leading to the phase-out of tendu patta collection activities.
Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.

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