THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Over 1,700 hectares of forest land in the state were burned down by 195 incidents of minor and major forest fires during this summer. Almost all fires, 99 percent of them, were man-made, some caused accidentally but most stoked purposefully. No human casualties have been reported. Nonetheless, in response to the Theni tragedy, the State Government has issued a ban on public entry into forest areas without permission. Senior forest officials, however, said that the year’s rate did not suggest a dramatic surge in forest fires when compared to previous years; last summer (between January and June) 2995 hectares of forest were brought down in 737 incidents.
Forest Survey of India had identified 500 sq km of forest land in the state as highly prone to forest fires. Forest fires in the state are controlled mostly using members of vana samrakshana samithis. Each VSS, which normally has 15-20 members, will get Rs 1,000 for protecting one hectare of forest during a season. A VSS will have 300-500 hectares of forest under its jurisdiction. Therefore, after a season, a VSS will pocket Rs 3 to 5 lakh.
WAYS TO TACKLE FIRES
When a minor fire erupts, fire beaters (either large leafy branches or artificial rubber leaves) are used to beat the fire into submission. But beaters are too inadequate to deal with raging fires. For this, field workers will make a fireline around the burning forest. (A fireline, 5.2 metres wide, is created by clearing all that could be fuel for the fire - like dry leaves, twigs and the humus that had been formed by the deposition of all these organic substances– around the flaming forest.)
Multiple firelines create fragments of burning forests. When the fire reaches the border of each of these fragments, it abruptly does down for want of fuel. “If the fire is too powerful, we also initiate a counterfire within the fragment. Fire masses moving in opposite directions clash and die down,” Rajendra Babu, a field officer said.
Top forest officials admit that most incidents of forest fires have a retaliatory character. “It can be done by a vengeful former forest watcher who had lost his job or an accused in a forest case,” said Syam Mohanlal K. N., deputy conservator of forests (forest resources). Elephant dung, which is inflammable, is a popular tool used by those looking for revenge. “They will insert a spark of fire inside the dung, usually in the form of a fuming cigarette stub, and throw it inside the forest. The fire will smoulder for two days and then will explode on the third, triggering a major forest fire," he said.
The ‘counterfire’ technique used by farmers who have plots bordering forest lands is the other major cause. “To preempt forest fires from reaching their land, they sent out a line of fire towards the forest which when left uncontrolled can erupt into a major forest fire,” Mr Babu said. The accidental sparks produced by trekkers and tourists, too, could stoke a fire.