So far this year, India’s erratic weather patterns have made headlines with non-seasonal rainfall in March-April followed by intense heat waves in May. However, one of the most dangerous threats to the environment, forest fires, have gone unnoticed yet again.

The frequency of forest fire incidents in India has increased by 52% in the last two decades, from 2000 to 2020, according to a 2021 analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. This year too, there have already been fires in the non-fire-prone wet forests of Goa, and in the forests of Karnataka, Odisha, and Uttarakhand.

There are concerns that forest fires may increase with the prediction of El Niño between June and September and the World Meteorological Organization warning of warm and dry weather in the latter half of 2023. According to the World Meteorological Organization, El Niño is a climate pattern associated with the warming of the ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.

While forest fires in India are mostly man-made, unseasonal high temperatures and deficient rainfall can lead to severe dryness in the vegetation and make the conditions conducive for the rapid spread of fires. The World Meteorological Organization in May published its Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update that predicted the world breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold during the next five years.

This means an increase in both the intensity and frequency of heat extremes as well erratic rainfall patterns leading to droughts and floods. During the Paris climate agreement in 2015, countries set 1.5 degrees Celsius as the threshold to limit global warming as temperatures beyond this would mean heightened risks for life on earth.

In 2023, India already saw the warmest February and recorded a mere 7.2 mm rainfall, the sixth lowest for the month in over 120 years. Following this, India saw a near 115% increase in satellite-detected forest fires in early March compared to last year. Forest fires can be expected to increase significantly in the coming years as temperatures increase.

Leveraging technology, involving local communities, scaling early warning systems, and disaster management planning are some suggestions that might help tackle this.

Technology: First should be tapping the revolution in internet and geospatial technologies to effectively manage fires in all three phases. In the pre-fire phase, a detailed forest fire risk assessment should be conducted and incorporated in fire management plans to prioritise actions and areas. This assessment should utilise fire occurrence-based hotspot data along with other landscape indicators such as proximity to infrastructure, economic reliance on forests, and social factors.

During the fire season, SMS-based and app-based fire warning and alert systems should be developed and implemented locally. These systems should be built on the local specific forest fire susceptibility indicators and be suited to varied vegetation types. Fire weather forecasts that are readily available from global portals, like the Global wildfire information systems, should be integrated into these warning systems. Lastly, post-fire, a rapid damage assessment should be carried out using pre- and post-fire satellite imagery. This can play a crucial role in providing precise estimates of loss of forest and property due to fires.

A fire at Assam's Kaziranga National Park, in this photograph from 2006. Credit: gnozef from netherlands, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Capacity: The second is enhancing the capacity of local stakeholders to reduce fire risk and improve response. Given that the communities dependent on forests for their livelihoods are those most affected by fires, they need to be included in all levels of decision-making that pertain to their geography. There is an urgent need to build awareness among communities on the controlled burning of dry vegetation.

Community action for forest fire response and mitigation can be leveraged by providing incentives and employment opportunities in local responses such as creating fire lines and fire risk assessment as highlighted in the national action plan on forest fire. This participatory model for forest management offers significant cost savings for the forest department too.

Scaling: Various community-level forest fire early warning systems exist in the country, for instance, in Odisha’s Kandhamal district where volunteers from the Youth4Water Plus campaign have worked closely with the residents to educate them on preventing forest fires. Similarly, Kharkiya’s women in Uttarakhand mobilised to form a Mahila Mangal Dal who put out fires quickly through early warning alerts on WhatsApp.

The success of these examples can help scale the approaches to wider geographies in the country. However, as mentioned by Krishna Vatsa, member of the National Disaster Management Authority during a G20 Disaster Risk Reduction side event in Mumbai, scaling up the local risk management framework is not possible unless there is a strong public-private partnership.

Collaboration between the government, private entities and local non-profits can provide the necessary support and resources to implement and sustain these early warning systems on a broader scale.

Mainstreaming: While the 2018 national plan on forest fires encompasses various activities, there are significant challenges in terms of financial constraints and operational effectiveness. To deal with this, it is crucial to shift the focus of forest fire management from response to preparedness by institutionalising forest fire risk assessments in exposed state and district disaster management plans.

Moreover, given the damages faced by forests and dependent communities due to forest fires, the National Disaster Management Authority should also assess the feasibility of categorising forest fires as a disaster for relief and response. While the latest guidelines mention “fires” as a disaster, they do not distinguish between man-made and forest fires.

Including forest fires as a disaster will boost the national plan by allocating more financial resources and establishing a dedicated team of trained forest firefighters within the National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Force.

Given that nearly 62% of Indian states have forests prone to fires, India, as it hosts the G20 presidency this year, has an opportunity to showcase its leadership in disaster risk reduction and developing the resilience of communities, ecosystems, and infrastructure.

By prioritising effective measures to address forest fires, India can protect its biodiversity and environment as well as boost its ambitious climate change mitigation and carbon sequestration efforts.

Vishwas Chitale is Senior Programme Lead and Shravan Prabhu is Research Analyst at Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

June 5 is World Environment Day.