Representational Image. Image Coutesy: Down to Earth
According to the Large Forest Fire Monitoring System launched by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) on January 16, 2019, the number of large forest fires has shot up to 14,107 from 4,225 between November 2018 and February 2019. According to the monitoring system, there are as many as 58 large forest fires active at the moment.
The real time fire alert system was launched as a part of the Last Forest Fire Monitoring System, and works using near real time data from the SNPP-VIIRS satellite. FSI uses it to track large fire events across the country and disseminate specific large fire alerts with the objective to identify, track, and report serious incidents of forest fire so that they can be monitored by the State Forest Department and steps to contain the fires can be taken. As per the FSI, the tracking system aims to improve tactical and strategic response to large forest fires.
According to the data available through the tracking system, there have been 558 forest fires between January 1, 2019, and February 25. Among these, 205 forest fires, that is 37 per cent of the total fires, occurred in the five southern states of India - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana. Maharashtra also made up for a major chunk of the forest fires.
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According to a report by DownToEarth, however, even though the number of forest fires has increased at an alarming rate, fire prevention does not seem to be too high on the priority lists of the five southern states. According to DownToEarth’s State of the Environment Report, 2019, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka, three states that recorded a massive increase in the number of incidences, spent only 60 per cent of the funds allocated to contain fires.
On February 12, 2019, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment on Forests presented a report on “Status of Forests in India” in Rajya Sabha, which criticised the states for not utilising the funds in an appropriate manner. The report read, “It is said that there are fund constraints in Ministry, but there are instances where funds are not utilised by the states in a manner in which they should have been. This was a failure of the system, particularly on the part of the State Forest Department.”
The report mentioned that the forest staffs have very rudimentary techniques to extinguish forest fires, and non-availability of enough water is often one of the issues. The committee has also raised concerns about the loss of lives in forest fires, besides the severe degradation of forests and irreparable losses to valuable flora and fauna. It said that there is a crucial need for developing an integrated approach with proper co-ordination mechanism between the State Governments, Forest Departments, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), local Air Force authorities, and the Central Ministry for quelling fires. The committee recommended that public awareness programmes be conducted periodically in the vulnerable forest fire areas about the safety measures.
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The India State of Forest Report, 2017 said that were as many as 33,664 small and large forest fires in the year 2017.
According to the report, even though the number of forest fires increased by 125 per cent between 2015 and 2017, the centre kept constantly reducing its spending on averting the fires since 2015-2016. The amount of money released decreased from Rs 43.85 crore in 2015 to Rs 34.56 crore in 2017.
The Parliamentary Committee has recommended that the Real Time Forest Alert System be taken seriously, and adequate measures be taken by both the state and central governments to quell the fires.