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Australia’s Fire Season

  • 02 Apr 2020

Let’s take a look at one of the biggest natural disasters of recent times - the Australian forest fires!

In Australia bushfires are so common that they have a season named after it, the 'fire season'. The last quarter of 2019 and the start of 2020 were to be the year of the deadliest bushfires over the past decades. These bushfires were sparked in late October at Gospers mountain in New South Wales when a tiny spark of lightning struck the earth and trees that had become extremely dry due to harsh winters caught fire.

The surprising aspect of this fire season was the fact that this bushfire which was of such a gigantic size, continued to burn and destroy the populated areas of the Australian continent for months. Fires of this magnitude have earlier happened only in lesser populated areas such as Northern Canada or Siberia due to large forest covers, minimal population and negligible infrastructure.

The mega blaze perhaps occurred due to climate change - it has been observed that in the Australian continent the average temperature has increased by one degree celsius over the years.

The Cause

The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) or 'Indian Nino' is believed to be the major cause behind the 'mega blaze' in Australia.

IOD is an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon, where ‘dipole’ refers to ‘two poles’ or ‘two areas of differences’. This phenomenon measures differences in sea surface temperatures in opposite parts of the Indian Ocean that is, between the Arabian Sea (western pole) and the eastern Indian Ocean, south of Indonesia.

A dipole is divided into 3 phases - positive, negative and neutral.

In the positive phase, which has been the strongest in 2019, rainfall tends to move with the warm waters causing heavy downpours for months in eastern African countries. However, in the eastern side of the Indian Ocean, the sea surface temperature is colder than usual, resulting in a minimal amount of rainfall.

A negative phase would result in warmer weather and abundant rainfall in the eastern Indian Ocean and at the same time, cast a cooler and drier spell on the west.

A neutral phase can be reduced to the prevalence of average sea surface temperatures across the Indian Ocean.

Damage Caused

  • Physical and Economic Impact: The Australian bushfires have resulted in the burning of 18 million hectares of land, taking down 5900 buildings including 2800 homes, from late October to mid-January. In addition to human fatalities, these fires had been responsible for the death of millions of animals.
  • Impact on Ecology and Biodiversity: Australia is believed to be one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world. But in the past few years due to climate change and habitat destruction by human beings, it can now hardly boast the presence of any biodiversity, let alone the variety of species it once possessed. In these forest fires, about 1.25 billion animals were estimated dead either by being burnt alive or, due to destruction of habitat and food caused from the fires. For example, the level of destruction on the Kangaroo island is difficult to fathom. This island, which had retained it’s multifarious flora and fauna for centuries because of its separation from the mainland and lesser predation activities by various animals, has been burnt down to the ground and so has been half of the koala population living there. It is evident that burning of the forest cover on such a large scale will have cataclysmic effects on the wildlife population here.
  • Public Health: Wildfires produce harmful smoke which directly affects human health. The smoke emitted by these fires is a mixture of hazardous gases and particles, which can cause irritation in the eyes, affect the respiratory system; cause bronchitis, asthma, and even premature death. Thus, wildfires are directly responsible for causing health problems to human beings.
  • Impact on Agriculture: Australia’s agriculture industry is likely to suffer the most due to the devastation of pastures and vineyards as well as due to the massive loss of livestock which can only be recovered by over utilising its already depleting water resources. Thus, such a huge loss is likely to affect the availability of basic amenities such as - food, wool, milk, honey, etc in the medium to long run.

In various ecosystems, fire plays an essential role as a ‘birth giver’ because it acts as a cleanser for the soil and certain plants. For example, some plants in the Southern USA, Australia and also around the Mediterranean region, need fire to survive and grow. Douglas fir (genus Pseudotsuga), which is a genus of about six species of evergreen trees of the Conifer family, is known to survive fire because of it’s thick bark and this tree often gives birth to new shoots after coming in contact with a forest fire.

Wildfires also act as initiators of growth for young plants and trees by burning out the old, diseased and dying trees. When such trees are gone it is possible for sunlight to reach the ground and help in their growth. Moreover, some insects like the larva of the Fire Beetle also need fire to survive and grow.

Wildfires play an indirect but significant role in maintaining the food chain. As an example, the smoke emitted from wildfires make insects and beetles sluggish, which makes it easier for storks and birds to feed on them.

Forest Fires in India

India is considered a humongous zone of biodiversity, inhabited by varied floral and faunal and in much abundance. In total, a forest cover of 6,92,027 square km spread across the Indian subcontinent is considered economically rich.

The Forest Survey of India published a report in 1995, revealing that more than 95% of forest fires in India are man-made. The estimated annual loss due to forest fires in the country is approx. Rs. 4,400 million by some estimates.

Fire seasons in India are not uniform as it depends on the presence of oxygen, fuel, and heat, which are not consistent variables across the country. However, fires usually occur in many of the forests of India between the months of February and June. However, in states like Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, forests are prone to fires throughout the year.

Causes of Forest Fires in India

  • Forest fires are easily ignited by excessive heat or a lightning strike on dry fuel such as leaves, animal fodder, etc).
  • Most of the time, forest fires of severe nature, both intentionally and unintentionally, are ignited by human beings. Shifting cultivation requires the land to be burnt down and such fires can sometimes spread rapidly and lead to the destruction of forests in the adjoining areas.
  • Timber mafias often use forest fires to scare away forest officials and these fires have the potential to cause widespread loss to the tree cover. Timber mafias are active in states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Manipur, Sikkim, etc.
  • Fires are often started to burn off farm residues, to put a stop to the growth of weeds and pests, as well as to scare away wild animals. Also, various activities such as resin tapping are also prone to causing forest fires, specifically in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
  • Then there are the potential forest fire causing activities like tribal customs that involve setting fire to the forest on certain auspicious occasions.
  • Lastly, one of the common but highly irresponsible causes behind the eruption of forest fires is the throwing away of burning beedis and cigarettes over dry fuel (like leaves, fodder, etc) inside our forests, by both locals and tourists.

Effects of Forest fires

Fires can thwart the regeneration potential of the soil which can lead to delay in the process of growing a new crop. For instance, researchers have discovered that forest fires put an end to the regeneration capacity of Sal as well as Chir pine trees. This is unlike when forest fires help trees grow.

Repeated burning of the forest floor results in site deterioration, change or decline in soil nutrients and frequent soil erosion from the ground floral species being burnt off. Timber quality is also affected, as forest fires initiate deterioration of a tree from its base

Prevention Measures by the Government

The first step taken by the Indian government soon after Independence was the formulation of a National Forest Policy (1952) to promote forest management, the practice of afforestation and protection against various disasters that could catastrophically affect forest health.

The central government has also instructed the States to use modern measures and technologies to tackle the problem of forest fire. The central government with the cooperation of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO-UN) had launched a project and established a committee to deal with the problem on the ground level. The report published by the committee suggested the following measures for prevention and control of forest fires:

  • There is a pressing demand to hire an adequate number of fire watchers especially during the months when the fire season is at its peak. Strict surveillance will eventually reduce the risk of eruption of fires itself.
  • Proper cleaning and maintenance of fire lines should be carried out. [A fire line is a line of varying width constructed through the litter on the forest floor down to mineral soil to control a fire. A fire lane is also constructed through the litter on the forest floor to mineral soil and is a precautionary effort to protect an area from wildfire.]
  • Ensuring proper forest management and silvicultural practices, which were initially abandoned but now should be reintroduced to ensure the well being of forests. Various silvicultural treatments include - thinning, harvesting, pruning, planting, prescribed burning etc, which should be indulged in carefully to avoid spreading of fires. Also, a ban on the felling of pine trees should be immediately imposed. Various alternative uses of pine needles should be unearthed, so as to reduce the accumulation of combustible material on the forest floor.
  • The forest department staff should be provided with a wireless communication network to take immediate action in cases of forest fires and illicit felling and at least one motor vehicle reserved for the timely and quick transportation of man and materials from one place to another.
  • Timber rights of villagers, who refuse to help the forest department in the extinguishing of forest fires for whatever reasons, should be curtailed.

State governments have been directed to provide adequate funds for the implementation of the aforementioned measures to ensure the conservation and healthy living of the forests throughout the country.

In conclusion, it can be observed from the scanty data available on the loss of forests to forest fires, mostly due to fear of accountability, proves that the governments on both levels are least concerned about this issue. The data released by FSI (Forest Survey of India) is based on research conducted since 1965 and published more than 25 years later in a report in 1995. Thus, it is crucial to not only update the existing data, but also launch various preventive measures, involving modern technology and methods, to curb the devastation caused by forest fires and similar disasters.

 Mahima Sethi 

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