Fires are a crucial component of some forest systems, says group of scientists
‘Complexities of forest fires need to be understood and managed better’
Fires are sprouting in forest tracts, especially across southern India. As harried Forest Departments and Fire Services personnel douse flames, and photographs of wildlife and trees burnt to cinder make the rounds, a group of scientists is asking a question that would seem almost unbelievable under the current circumstances: are some forest fires necessarily as bad as we make them out to be?
Six scientists who study fire-prone forest systems across India have written an open letter on the importance of “fighting fire with fire.” The letter, signed by Dr. Abi Tamim Vanak, Dr. Ankila Hiremath and Dr. Nitin Rai of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE); Dr. Raman Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc); Dr. Jayashree Ratnam of the National Centre for Biological Sciences’ (NCBS); and Tarsh Thekaekara of The Shola Trust, says that “there is an urgent need for a more nuanced view of forest fires.”
The reasons for this — based on history, ecology, science and indigenous knowledge — are many. According to the scientists, forest fires have been occurring in India from at least 60,000 years ago, ever since modern humans appeared here. They added that “forests that we think are natural and ‘pristine’ have often been created by anthropogenic burning for thousands of years.”
Dormant seeds revive
In fact, several native trees and plants in these landscapes have “co-evolved” with fire: fire helps revive dormant seeds of many species. A study by Dr. Sukumar and Dr. Nandita Mondal showed that, in Mudumalai, even young woody trees survive ground fires and have higher growth rates immediately post-fire, until they reach a certain height.
Another study, published just a month ago by Dr. Ratnam and her co-authors, reveals that fires, along with seasonal droughts, which are again painted as problematic, are important drivers of dry deciduous tracts across Andhra Pradesh-Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Yet, the concept of fires being entirely detrimental to these ecosystems, argue the signatory scientists, has been derived from a colonial concept that looked at forests only for their timber potential. As a result, fire exclusion and suppression is the norm.
More evidence points to fires even suppressing invasive species. Over a decade of working with the Soliga communities at Karnataka’s Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve, Dr. Rai and some of his colleagues at ATREE find that the exclusion of tribal communities from the reserve had in turn stopped their traditional use of small “litter fires” just before the dry season set in. Dr. Rai’s work, as well as other studies, link this to the abundance of invasive lantana that now chokes other native plants there.
According to Soligas’ accounts, hairy mistletoe — a parasitic shrub that affects mature trees — has also thrived due to fire suppression. Studies corroborate this too: mistletoe-induced tree deaths are high and have resulted in the decline of wild gooseberry trees, which the Soligas rely upon for forest produce.
But what about large fires, such as the recent one in Karnataka’s Bandipur National Park?
High-intensity fires would have negative effects, agree the scientists, but they happen only because dry biomass has been allowed to build up and low-intensity controlled burning has been stopped.
Fire is indeed an important tool in forest management, said A.K. Dharni, Kerala’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests-Forest Management. Controlled fires in areas that have huge fuel loads (dry litter and biomass on the forest floor) around December can help prevent as well as reduce the impact of large fires later in the season, he said.
“If an area is continuously protected from fire, it could catch fire once in four years or so because of the high accumulation of grass, wood and twigs,” he said. “But fire [as a tool] has to be used very intelligently,” Mr. Dharni added.
‘Push for changes’
In their letter, the signatory scientists request policy makers and Forest Departments “to push for changes in legislation that allow for more scientific and thoughtful management of forests”. They also suggest that NGOs and activists engage with these complexities and nuances about forest fires rather than advocating “blanket ‘stop forest fire’ campaigns.”