Uttarakhand seems to be moving from one natural tragedy to the next – the devastating floods of 2013, to the current forest fires. Though rainfall in the first week of May largely doused the fires except in a few areas, official statistics say that the fires destroyed 1,900 hectares of forests.
Different forest-types respond to, and recover from, conflagrations in different fashions. The mid-elevation belt of the central Himalayas was among the areas worst hit by these fires. Two broad types of forest occur in this belt – those dominated by oak, or chir pine. This is where I have been working and from where I draw most of my observations on the current fires.
So far, most of the news, opinion and conspiracy theories have focused on fires in chir forests. Much of the debate has been on the fire’s origins, the long-term changes in landuse patterns, loss of old oak forests and severe shrinkage of surface water flow, all of which may have driven the massive fires.
Yet there is a disturbing silence about how huge swaths of oak forests have been affected by the fires and how this will impact biodiversity. Local perception across a number of villages I visited was that these fires were the worst ever in memory because locals don’t recall such large patches of oak forests burning, ever.
A grave tragedy
Right through the worst phase of the fire crisis, I was based in, and travelling around, an area of Kumaon where one of the best and largest natural oak-dominated forests occur. Oak-dominated forests, also known as broadleaf forests, are the most diverse natural ecosystems of the mid-elevation central Himalayan belt. They are also critical for the local farm-driven economy.
I recorded over 100 species of birds and 10 species of mammals from a range of oak forest habitats. This is the breeding and nesting season for most species, and the effect of the fires on local fauna will be calamitous. Apart from direct mortalities and loss of habitat, countless nests, eggs, fawns and hatchlings may have been burnt to ashes.
The branches and trunks of living oak trees are densely covered with mosses and lichens, which are critical nest-building material and foraging substratum for many bird species. These are often lost during fires even when the oak, a fire-hardy species, survives. Depending on rainfall, it may take several months to over a year, for this secondary vegetation to regrow. Therefore, an intense fire in an oak forest not only leads to loss of species due to death, but also through displacement and impairment of breeding.
Other animals such as invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals often are the worst victims in terms of direct mortality. I had earlier recorded a king cobra, a rarity in such dry forests, on a main-road near Talla Ramgarh. I now wonder what the fate of that majestic snake is since the forest near where we spotted it has been scorched.
Maheshkhan reserve forest, known for its large oak forests, was badly hit too. Forest guards there reported a partially burnt leopard and barking deer and seven small scorched birds. We had visited this forest twice before the fires started – it was one of the best birding and wildlife viewing sites we found. Countless large oak trees, over 30 metres tall, along with a lush green understory, and a forest floor covered with thick leaf litter – an important foraging resource for pheasants, babblers and thrushes – gave one the feeling of being in a dense, pristine forest. But now, the forest floor in most of these sites is black with ash, the understory yellowish brown, while trunks and branches of numerous oak trees are black. Instead of the noisy chattering of birds, an eerie silence prevails. A once thriving, complex dense broadleaf forest ecosystem now resembles, and smells of, a cremation ground.
As an ecologist, I love to observe patterns in natural systems and events. Therefore, as I went from one burnt oak forest in Uttarakhand to another, I couldn’t help but observe some patterns, which I narrate below. Unless mentioned otherwise, most of my observations relate to oak-dominated forests.
One of the first noticeable patterns was that patches with taller oak trees didn’t burn as much as those with shorter, stunted ones. This is because stunted trees have relatively open canopies, which allow the area to receive more sunlight and heat, making the patches drier, hence more inflammable.
In such patches, oak trees often co-occur with chir, thereby rendering the patches more prone to damage during fires. This is because shorter trees are more vulnerable to fires as their crowns are much closer to the ground. Also, fire in the lower and middle portions of chir trunks can easily engulf the crown of a stunted oak. And crown fires are most damaging for birds and invertebrate fauna.
Another prominent pattern was that forests on steeper slopes were more damaged than those on less steep ones. This is because flames rise upwards, igniting the dry mass on the forest floor uphill. Burning cones and embers also roll down steeper slopes faster and farther, helping fires to spread. Wind currents, which during a fire turn into hot gushes of air, usually move uphill too. They heat up dry leaf litter and crowns, which burn faster when flames reach them. Thus in steeper slopes, it was commoner to see trees scorched entirely from base to crown.
Forests near perennial water sources either burnt frugally or didn’t burn at all. Such patches are cooler due to high ambient humidity, a relatively denser and wet vegetation and lower penetration of sunlight due to denser canopies. These patches must be zealously protected, and preserved. Not merely because water sources are getting scarcer every day, but also because they increase the ecological resilience of forests to fires. They also provide critical refuge to animals during fires. We observed an unusually higher bird activity in such patches on fire days as compared to normal ones.
Roping in locals
Most forests that have burnt are government forests. A forest department employee told me that there is a lot friction between the department and villagers, chiefly because villagers are restricted from using resources from Reserve Forests. He said villagers often set fires to vent their anger. While this may be true in a few cases, there may be other factors as to why Reserve Forests burnt more than Van Panchayat Forests – co-owned by villages through the institution of Gram Panchayat, but managed exclusively by villagers.
Locals use Van Panchayat Forests intensively and extensively. For instance, in oak forests, fresh leaves serve as cattle fodder, dry branches as firewood and dry leaf litter is used for compost. Chir forests are tapped for pine resin, dry pine needles are used to line boxes of fruit for transportation, and branches are used as firewood.
With a few exceptions, oak forests, which were used more often burnt less, or not at all. This pattern existed across both Reserve and Van Panchayat forests. Two reasons could explain this pattern: 1) Heavily used patches had little or no leaf litter during this peak-dry leaf collecting season. Therefore there was no fuel for fires that usually spread through the ground. 2) People protect forests that provide resources critical to livelihoods. So, in Van Panchayat forests, where people have direct ownership and economic stakes, villagers mobilise their own resources to check fires instead of waiting for official rescue systems.
In Reserve Forests, particularly those where villagers are restricted from using resources, warning systems and response times are delayed due to the lack of adequate monitoring personnel and remote location of forest personnel from the affected site.
On the other hand, intensively used chir patches burn more as compared to less used ones. This is probably because fire increases the yield of all the products that chir provides: dry needles, resin and fuelwood. This might have necessitated the regular annual burning of chir forests by villagers. Not only chir, controlled fires also allow other species like burans (Rhododendron) and kaafal (Bayberry) to establish and prosper. These trees attract numerous birds and mammals, thereby increasing the biodiversity profile of chir forests. Therefore no one seems to complain about a fire in pine forests. But during prolonged dry periods, such burning should be strictly monitored and controlled.
Using the above patterns, official agencies can map forests based on vulnerability to fire-risk. This will help to prioritise the use of limited resources and personnel in the most vulnerable forest patches.
Some of the worst burnt patches of oak wouldn’t have burnt so badly if those areas didn’t have a surplus of dry leaf-litter and fallen dry branches. Perhaps villagers can be allowed to extract these resources in a regulated manner from patches in high-vulnerability areas. This may also improve the relationship between the forest department and locals. Additionally, the forest department can rope in locals to help in activating fire alarm systems.
Rajkamal Goswami is an ecologist. He is a post-doctoral Fellow at CEDAR and honorary consultant, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.