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ISSUE BRIEF
Managing Forest Fires in a Changing Climate
07 April, 2022
Abinash Mohanty and Vidur Mithal

Suggested citation: Mohanty, Abinash and Vidur Mithal. 2022. Managing Forest Fires in a Changing Climate. New Delhi: Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Overview

This study presents a micro-level assessment of forest fires by identifying the states most vulnerable to high-intensity forest fires and their district hotspots while taking climate change indicators into consideration. The study also investigates the impact of forest fires on local air pollution. The study argues that a comprehensive assessment at a localised level can help mitigate forest fires.

Key Findings

  • More than 62 per cent of Indian states are prone to high-intensity forest fire events. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Uttarakhand were extreme forest fire-prone states across the last two decades (2000-19).
  • Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh were the most impacted states and Gadchiroli, Kandhamal and Bijapur were the most impacted districts because of forest fire incidents in 2019–2020.
  • There has been a 10-fold increase in forest fire incidences in the last two decades. While the total forest cover (TFC) has increased by 1.12%, the frequency of forest fire incidents has increased by 52 per cent.
  • More than 79 per cent of the forest fire hotspots lie in Cwa zones— which have at least ten times as much rain in the wettest month of summer than in the driest month of winter — and Aw zones — which have a pronounced dry season, with the driest month having precipitation of less than 60 mm — climate zones.
  • More than 30 per cent of Indian districts, home to over 275 million people, are extreme forest fire hotspots. Further, more than 68% of Indian districts witness extreme drought or drought-like conditions and 89% of the forest fire extreme hotspot districts are located in these regions.
  • The analysis also highlights the existence of a distinct ‘fire season’ between February and May.
  • There has been a 14-time increase in forest fire alerts in the last six years and forest fire alerts have tripled in number in 2020–2021.

"Sharp increase in forest fires over the last two decades calls for a significant course correction in our approach to managing forest fires. For starters, we should recognise forest fires as a natural hazard and earmark adequate funds for mitigation-related activities. The development of forest fire-only alert systems can better enhance the adaptive capacity of communities and concerned government agencies."

Executive Summary

There is no denying that in a warming and increasingly changing climate, forest fires are likely to intensify at an unprecedented scale, disrupting the ecological and socio-economic fabric of the country. Globally, fires are used as a forest management tool; however, rapid changes in climate and meteorological variables (high temperatures, inadequate precipitation, and wind speed anomalies) are fanning forest fires across the globe and in India as well (FAO 2020). Indian forests have the potential to sequester an additional 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030 and ensure livelihoods for 22 per cent of the population (275 million) who rely on forests for their sustenance (Sharma 2018). India as part of the Bonn Challenge at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 15 committed to restoring 13 million hectares of its degraded forests by 2020, and an additional 8 million hectares by 2030 – which was enhanced to 26 million hectares in 2019 (PIB 2019). There is plenty of scope to improve the management of forests – primarily to protect against the impacts of climate change, increase in the incidents of forest fires, deforestation, and forest diversions, among others. About 36 per cent of forest cover in India falls under extreme, very high, high, and moderate forest fire– prone zones (FSI 2019).

Our study presents a micro-level assessment of forest fires by identifying the states most vulnerable to high-intensity forest fires and their district hotspots while taking into consideration the warming and varying climate. The study also investigates the impact of forest fires on local air pollution. We use multi-decadal (2000–09|2010–19) spatiotemporal analysis to identify the high-intensity forest fire vulnerable states and their correlation with the varying microclimate.

The study argues that a comprehensive assessment for forest fires by integrating climatological scenarios at a localised level can help mitigate forest fires better. Our analysis suggests that there has been a 10-fold increase in forest fire incidences in the last two decades, whereas the total forest cover (TFC) has only increased by 1.12 per cent. Our analysis further suggests that tropical moist deciduous forests, followed by tropical dry deciduous forests, are most vulnerable to forest fires.

More than 62% of Indian states are prone to high-intensity forest fire events (2000–19)

More than 62% of Indian states are prone to high-intensity forest fire events (2000–19

Source: Authors’ analysis
Note: The base map shapefile is based on India’s 2011 Census and, therefore, does not represent current states / UTs boundaries.

More than 30 per cent of Indian districts are hotspots for extreme forest fires

Our study finds that more than 30 per cent of all Indian districts, home to more than 275 million people, are extreme forest fire hotspots. Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Telangana, and the north-eastern region (NER) states – except for Sikkim – are prone to highintensity forest fire events. In the decade 2000–09, more than 58 per cent of Indian states were exposed to high-intensity forest fire events; among these states, 34 per cent were exposed to extreme forest fires; 13 per cent to very high intensity; and 10 per cent to high intensity forest fires, respectively.

Similarly, in the decade 2010-19, more than 65 per cent of states are exposed to high-intensity forest fire events, out of which 41 per cent are exposed to extreme forest fires, 13 per cent to very high, and 10 per cent to high forest fires, respectively. Further, table below represents the forest fire hotspot states and districts based on our multi-decadal analysis (2000-09 | 2010-19).

Forest fire hotspot states and districts in order of proneness (highest to lowest)

Forest fire hotspot states and districts in order of proneness (highest to lowest)

Source: Authors’ analysis

89 per cent of the forest fire extreme hotspot districts are located in drought hotspot regions

We performed a spatio-temporal analysis to map the forest fire hotspots on a downscaled Köppen classification of climate zones. To understand the correlation between forest fire hotspots and varying microclimates, we use the base-level microclimate zone variation maps from Mohanty’s (2020) microclimate zone analysis to derive an understanding of forest fire incidents across different microclimate zones. Our analysis suggests that most forest fire incidences are occurring across districts that are drought hotspots or are increasingly showing a swapping trend (traditional flood-prone areas becoming drought-prone). Further, this confirms that drought or drought-like conditions are marked by increased dry spells, which are consequently intensifying forest fires. Kandhamal (Odisha), Sheopur (Madhya Pradesh), Udham Singh Nagar (Uttarakhand), and East Godavari (Andhra Pradesh) are some of the forest fire hotspot districts that are also showing a swapping trend from flood to drought. Figure 5 maps the extreme forest fire–prone areas across varying microclimate zones. The forest fire district hotspots are primarily located in the Cwa , Bsh, Am, and Aw climate zones. More than 79 per cent of the forest fire hotspots lie in the Cwa and Aw climate zones.

Onset of the fire season results in an increase in aerosol optical depth (AOD)

We also investigated the impact of changing forest fire patterns on local air pollution. Looking at the values for aerosol optical depth (AOD), we find that the onset of the fire season results in an increase in AOD, indicating higher levels of hazardous particulates in the atmosphere. This trend is observed for all the leading forest fire hotspots except Harda, Madhya Pradesh, wherein several factors may obscure results from this analysis. We also found the trend to be weaker in 2020, possibly owing to relatively fewer fires in that year and an above-average 2019 monsoon.

Improving forest-fire management

We recommend applying the principles of risk assessment and acknowledging forest fires as a chronic hazard at the core of India’s strategy. Our recommendations to climate-proof forests are as follows:

  • Recognise forest fires as a disaster type and integrate them into national, sub-national and local disaster management plans: The National Plan on Forest Fires was launched by the Government of India in 2018 under the flagship National Afforestation Programme. This plan touches upon a wide range of activities, but financial constraints and operational dynamism remains a challenge. Forest fires should be recognised as a disaster type under the NDMA act. The recognition will enhance and strengthen the National Plan on Forest Fires by improving its financial allocation and through the creation of a cadre of trained forest firefighters under the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF).
  • Develop a forest fire-only alert system: Currently, Forest Survey of India (FSI) and National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) use MODIS and Suomi NPP VIIRS information for near real-time monitoring of forest fires which does not segregate forest fires from other fires such as waste burning and crop burning. Hence, ground validation takes time and the scope for misinformation increases. As a first step, a forest fire ONLY alert system needs to be developed that can provide real-time impact-based alerts.
  • Enhance adaptive capacity: Capacity-building initiatives targeted at district administrations and forest-dependent communities can avert the extent of loss and damage due to forest fires. Training on high technology-focused equipment (like drones) and nature-based modules such as creating effective forest fire lines can effectively mitigate the spread of forest fires.
  • Provide clean air shelters: The state government/ state forest departments (SFDs) should repurpose public buildings like government schools and community halls by fitting them with clean air solutions – like air filters – to create clean air shelters for communities worst impacted by fires and smoke from forest fires.

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