In this ever warming and changing climate, forest fires are increasing in intensity and frequency around the world. Uttarakhand has seen 205 forest fires in the last seven days and 88 active large forest fires on April 27, 2022, according to Forest Survey of India's Large Forest Fire Monitoring Programme, which tracks potentially highly destructive forest fires in real time.

India, in the first three months of 2021, lost 2.82-million-hectares (Mha) land to forest fires, which was 61% of how much land was gutted in forest fires in the entire previous year, showed data collected by the Global Forest Watch. Moreover, there has been a 14-time increase in forest fire alerts in the last six years, showed a study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

FactChecker analysed data on forest fires in the last five years from various sources and found that in India, the area succumbed by forest fires between January and March has increased by 122% in the past five years. In the first three months of 2017, 1.27 Mha of land was lost to forest fires in India compared to 2.82 Mha during the same period in 2021.

As we approach the hottest months of the year, there is a possibility this situation may worsen as about 36% of forest cover in India falls under the categories of extreme, very high, high, or moderately forest fire-prone zones, according to the CEEW study. Moreover, over 30% of Indian districts, home to over 275 million people, are extreme forest fire hot-spots, added the study.

States With Most Fires

Madhya Pradesh (527) has seen the highest number of large forest fires from November 2021 till now. The central Indian state is followed by Chhattisgarh (305), Uttarakhand (292), Odisha (234) and Maharashtra (185). In just the last week, Uttarakhand has seen the highest number of large forest fires, followed by Madhya Pradesh (63), Chhattisgarh (46), Odisha (38) and Himachal Pradesh (31).

According to an FSI Report, Tripura (32%), Mizoram (26%), and Assam (11%) are the states with the highest percentage of forest area extremely prone to fires. In fact, the top 5 states with the most percentage of land cover extremely prone to forest fires are in the north-eastern region of India.

The CEEW study highlighted the occurrences of forest fires in India went up 10 times in the past two decades. The report also suggested that 89% of the extremely fire-prone areas in India coincide with drought-prone districts. "As global temperatures rise, instances of high-intensity forest fires have surged across the globe, especially in areas with dry weather," Abinash Mohanty, Programme Lead from CEEW, told FactChecker.

Climate change has been causing more and more erratic weather events, such as droughts and floods, throughout the country. According to a press release by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in April 2022, the 50-year annual rainfall normal in India has come down by 16.8 mm in the past 10 years. The southwest monsoon is passing through a dry epoch that started in the 1980s, according to the report. The spike in forest fires in India can so be seen as a manifestation of climate change.

Forest Fire Detection Systems

Two types of technologies are used by the FSI to alert state departments regarding forest fires. One is MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro-radiometer), and a newer sensor called SNPP-VIIRS that was added to the FSI fire monitoring system in 2017. The difference between the two instruments is that VIIRS works with a polar-orbiting satellite for imaging, and hence provides higher resolution data.

The FSI's 2021 Report showed that Odisha saw the maximum number of fire detections at almost 51,968 alerts from VIIRS. It was followed by Madhya Pradesh (47,795) and Chhattisgarh (38,106), which contributed to a total of 3.45 lakh fire detections throughout the country in the same period, which is a high jump of nearly 178% from last season. This figure is inclusive of large, medium, and small fire alerts.

The analysis of the number of forest fire alerts through the older MODIS system showed that the alerts touched a 135% increase in 2021 from the previous year — 52,785 in 2021 from 22,447 in 2020.

Damage Caused by Forest Fires

The number of alerts as well as areas affected have constantly been on the rise in the past 5 years. Punjab has been the worst-affected state in terms of land area lost to forest fires in the past year– 2.01 million hectares burnt down according to data from the Global Forest Watch.

While the Total Forest Cover in India increased by 0.48% between 2013 and 2021, forest fires detected went up by 186% in the same time period, as per FactChecker's analysis of data from FSI's State of Forest Reports.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) supports states and Union Territories with funds under the Forest Fire Management and Prevention Scheme. The revised budget in 2021 was nearly Rs 33 crore, down from Rs 47 crore the previous year.

Despite the rise in forest fires across the country in recent years, the assistance budget released by MoEFCC saw a decrease of nearly 26% from 2016 to 2021, as per FactChecker's analysis of data from various Lok Sabha responses.

In the CEEW report, Mohanty also mentioned that forest-dependent communities and tribal populations are having a tough time as forest fires are becoming more and more common. "Livelihoods of 22% of the population, 275 million people, as per 2011 census rely on forests for sustenance," he told FactChecker. "Going forward, we should recognise forest fires as a natural hazard and earmark more funds for mitigation related activities."

Forest fires should be acknowledged as a chronic hazard at the core of India's disaster management strategy, concluded the study.