Forests in Kerala face high risk of fires

Firemap covering Neyyara and Peppara wildlife sactuaries from Jan. to May 2016Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala’s forests are likely to come under increased threat of forest fires in the coming summer unless precautionary measures are not taken.

Degraded forests areas are already drying up because of insufficiency of monsoon and the situation will worsen if summer rain is below normal.

December is the time when the Forest Department begins taking precautionary measures such as cutting of fire lines. (On the long term, forest fires in rain forests could be reduced if degradation is prevented). However, the Department seems to be ill prepared for this, given its record of managing funds for fire protection.

Replies received under a right to information query suggest that the Department does not have proper arrangements to monitor expenditure for fire protection despite information systems implemented at the Forest Headquarters years ago.

The Additional Principal Chief Forest Conservator (Forest, Land and Resources) said that his office did not have details of expenditure made during the last five years. The details are not available in a compiled form even at the divisional level though there are exceptions. Even at the range level, the replies are that they did not have any figures of total expenditure made in this regard.

The Public Information Office (PIO) of Kollengode Range office, for instance, said that detailed are in various files and registers and they have not been compiled (for the last five years).  Range offices such as Nenmara and Edavanna and social forestry division Thrissur, Marayur sandal division are also among local offices which have no information compiled on expenditure.

Since information on total annual expenditure is available with several other ranges and divisional office, it appears that some offices office do not have this practice. In the absence of such figures, no proper monitoring or internal auditing is taking place at the headquarters level. Amounts spend on fire protection in the forest ranges runs into lakhs of rupees every year.

Loss of forests in fires was one of the highest last summer. According to Department figures, 1969.08 hectares of forests were destroyed till May this year. In 2013 (12 months), the burnt area was 1740.53 hectares. In 2014 and 2015, the burnt areas were 1637.54 hectares and 1415.15 hectares respectively.  However, the number of fire incidents reported by the Department is at variance with those detected by satellites.

The assistant wildlife wardens of Neyyar and Peppara wildlife sanctuaries claim that no fire had occurred in the sanctuaries during the last five years. However, satellite data belie this. While, several fires have occurred in the Peppara wildlife sanctuary in the past, fires were rare in Neyyar sanctuary. However, a single fire had occurred in the sanctuary in March this year, according to NASA's Earth Observing System Data and Information System.

The system had showed a large number of fires in and around Wayanad wildlife sanctuary last summer and before. However, the assistant wildlife warden of Muthanga range claims that no loss had occurred from forest fires in the range between 2011-12 and 2015-16.

Though the working plan of High Range Circle says that management area of 3553 hectares in Nagarampara and Ayyappanpara ranges of Idukki district is highly prone to fires due to their degraded nature, the range forest officer claims that no fire has occurred there in the last five years. The Ayyappankovil range forest officer says that no loss had occurred on account of forest fires in the range other than burning of grasslands.

Though grasslands, especially shola grasslands, have high ecological value, the Department do not count fires on them as of any great significance. The loss from forest fires are always underestimated as only the economic value of species such as timber trees is counted. The ecological loss is never accounted for.

Moreover, department officials often reported fires as natural though most of them are man-made so that investigations could be avoided. Natural fires such as that resulting from lightening rarely occur in forests of Kerala. Thus, reporting leaves much to be desired even though the Department has a forest fire management system.

(Firemap shows fires that had occurred between January and May in 2016 in the Southern part of Western Ghats)