In the summer of 2016, the blackened hillsides of the western Himalayas were covered in a pall of smoke that the sun could barely penetrate. As residents and visitors watched, arsonists had set entire landscapes ablaze in Uttarakhand. The people paid to prevent this, the state forest department, sat back and went into “disaster management mode”, that is, demanding money to stop the fires.

When the carefully nurtured myth that forest fires were spontaneous was busted, they began applying the existing laws and prosecuting arsonists. By the time the fire season was over, the Uttarakhand forest department had arrested more than 200 people, some of them from neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.

The Uttarakhand High Court played its part by ordering that if a wildfire burnt for over 24 hours, the divisional forest officer concerned would be suspended. If the fire burnt for over 48 hours, the conservator of forests would face the same action, and if it raged beyond 72 hours, the principal chief conservator would stand suspended.

The impact of the crackdown and the judicial intervention is evident. In 2017 so far, the western Himalayas have been largely free of fires despite receiving no rainfall for several months. Some fires were indeed started by villagers in the inner ranges, generally to distract forest department officers while hunting parties set out in search of musk deer at high elevation, but they did not cause much damage. In the outer ranges, there were hardly any fires.

Nearly all wildfires that did start during late spring and summer this year were swiftly brought under control, by people on the ground armed with nothing more than green boughs to beat the fire out and rakes to clear away dry leaves.

Moreover, fire lines created before Independence were cleared this year after a long time, and this has helped keep wildfires in check. However, because the lines had not been cleared for so long – despite allocation of annual grants for the purpose – trees have grown there. The trees cannot be cut without clearance from the central government, so they continue to occupy the fire lines, for now.

In early May, there were a few incidents of large tracts being set on fire simultaneously. This made it difficult for residents or forest department officials to douse the fires. Perhaps that was the intention. As a result, a few tracts of forest in the Kumaon region were burnt – but the damage was nowhere near on the scale of 2016.

Villagers try to put out a fire in Uttarakhand last year. Photo credit: AFP

False claims

The forest department has still not modified its claim that wildfires are inevitable. Now, it is claimed that Chir pine forests burn every three years while oak forests have a fire cycle of 25 years. This might be true of forests under the control of the government that are degraded. But an oak forest next to my house, which is under private supervision for the past 65 years, has never seen a fire and there is no build up of humus. The reason? Abundance of plant detritus eaters such as earthworms, fungi, soil bacteria. Colonies of these detritivores swiftly reduce fallen leaves and dead plants to humus, leaving nothing for a fire to burn. If fires regularly sweep through an area, these colonies are eradicated, leading to a build up of dead leaves as seen in areas under the forest department. The uneaten dead leaves are what burn in government-controlled forests.

No Indian forest ecosystem uses fire as a means of breaking down plant detritus. There is also no Indian plant that requires fire for survival, unlike, say, the Lodgepole pine of North America, which needs fire for its cones to open and spread seeds.

The arrest of numerous alleged arsonists and the consequent reduction in forest fires has confirmed that wildfires in India are started by matches and not by lightning, rocks rubbing together, dew drops concentrating sunlight or other such claimed reasons.

The hollowness of the claim that Himalayan villagers burn forests so that their animals get new, nutritious grass that then grows is proved when one considers that grass does not grow abundantly in broadleaf forests with an undisturbed canopy. What the villagers traditionally set fire to are open, grassy hillsides and not forests. That such hillsides are classified as forests in the government’s records does not detract from the fact that broadleaf forests are not supposed to burn.

In the main forest range of the western Himalayas, which was left relatively undisturbed in the British colonial period, Chir pine colonises the ridges as well as the mixed broadleaf forests on the hillsides dominated by various species of oak. In the 19th century, when wood production became the priority of the newly formed forest department, large tracts in the middle and outer ranges were planted with this pine. This led to a cycle of forest fires since few detritivores feed on Chir pine needles and cones until they have been rinsed of resin in a few monsoons.

In other words, the large Chir pine forests of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are a colonial legacy, not a natural phenomenon. The Supreme Court has imposed a blanket ban on the felling of trees growing above 1,000 metres from sea level. Similarly, orders should be issued to reduce the area under Chir pine and instruct state forest departments to increase the area under oak and other broadleaf forests. This would be in India’s national interest.

Peter Smetacek runs the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal. Read his other articles on the Uttarakhand fires here.