Forest Fires in India: Types, Causes, Distribution and Mitigation | UPSC


  • A forest fire is an uncontrolled fire occurring in nature. Forest fires are a challenge across many countries and also a ubiquitous feature of India’s forest landscape.
  • Forest fires are considered to be a potential hazard with physical, biological, ecological and environmental consequences.
  • In India, it is estimated that the proportion of forest areas prone to fire annually ranges from 33% in some states to over 90% in others.
  • The Forest Survey of India (FSI) estimated that about 50% of the forest area of India is prone to forest fires.

Types of forest fires

  • Forest fires can broadly be classified into three categories:

a) Surface Fire:

  • It spreads with a flaming front and burns leaf litter, fallen branches and other fuels located at ground level.

b) Ground Fire:

  • It burns organic matter in the soil beneath surface litter and is sustained by glowing combustion. In a ground fire the burn stays down near the ground, burning underbrush and small trees. It leaves the soil in good condition.
  • Ground fires and surface fires can be managed by controlled burning of fuel load before the onset of fire season.

c) Crown Fire:

  • It burns through the top layer of foliage on a tree, known as the canopy or crown fires. Crown fires, the most intense type of fire and often the most difficult to contain, need strong winds, steep slopes and a heavy fuel load to continue burning.
  • Canopy fires burn the entire forest including the tops of big trees. They burn so hot that they sterlize everything both above the ground and down, perhaps a footCanopy files also send out balls of suspended gases that can jump into the soil.
  • Most forest fires in India are low-intensity surface fires, although crown fires do occur in the mountain pine forests.
  • To prevent catastrophic canopy fires, overcrowded forests with excessive understory fuel loads need to be thinned and cleared out.

Crown Fire

Causes of Forest Fires in India

  • Fire is a vital and natural part of the functioning of numerous forest ecosystems. However, in the latter part of the 20th century, changes in the human fire dynamics and an increase in El Nino frequency have led to a situation where fires are now a major threat to many forests and the biodiversity therein.
  • As many as 95% of forest fires in India are caused by humans. Some human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended and intentional acts of arson. The remaining 5% are started by stone rolling, bamboo rubbing or lightning.
  • Broadly, four forest fire clusters have been recognised in India. These are:
    • (a) North-Western Himalayas,
    • (b) North-East India,
    • (c) Central India and
    • (d) Western and Eastern Ghats.
  • Forest fires in the North-Western Himalayas are primarily due to the preponderance of pine forests and accumulation of thick flammable litter. Traditionally, graziers follow transhumance and they often lit forest for promoting new flush of grass.
    • The Himalayas forests, particularly in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are highly prone to forest fires in summer months due to accumulation of large quantities of pine needles on the forest floor which are very vulnerable to fire.
  • Majority forests in North-East India are community owned and traditionally. Local communities have been practicing slash and burn or shifting cultivation causing widespread annual forest fires.
  • Extensive forest tracts dominated by dry deciduous and moist deciduous Teak and Sal forests in central India get annually burned owing to use of fire for promoting collection of non-timber forest products.
  • In spite of the longer wet season and higher moisture regime, moist deciduous forests and semi-evergreen forests in Western and Eastern Ghats get burned frequently due to various biotic activities.

Why do peak forest fires occur during the spring?

  • A combination of weather conditions, fuel availability, human activity, and vegetation growth patterns during the spring season contributes to the increased likelihood of forest fires during this time. Specifically, peak forest fires often occur during the spring due to following reasons:

a) Weather Conditions:

  • In many regions, spring brings warmer temperatures and lower humidity levels, creating dry conditions that are conducive to the ignition and spread of wildfires. Additionally, spring is often associated with windy conditions, which can further fan the flames and spread the fire rapidly.

b) Fuel Availability:

  • In spring, dead vegetation from the previous year accumulates on the forest floor. This dry, dead vegetation, combined with newly emerging vegetation that hasn’t yet reached its full moisture content, serves as fuel for wildfires. As spring progresses, the vegetation continues to dry out, increasing the likelihood and intensity of wildfires.

c) Human Activity:

  • Springtime often sees an increase in outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, and outdoor cooking. Accidental ignition from campfires, discarded cigarettes, or other human activities can spark wildfires, particularly when conditions are dry and fire danger is high.

Impacts of forest fires in India

  • Forest fires in India have several significant impacts, both ecological and socio-economic:

a) Ecological Impact:

  • Loss of Biodiversity: Forest fires can result in the destruction of habitat for numerous plant and animal species, leading to loss of biodiversity.
  • Soil Erosion: The intense heat from forest fires can damage soil structure, making it more susceptible to erosion. This can lead to the loss of fertile topsoil and degradation of land.
  • Air Pollution: Forest fires emit large amounts of smoke and particulate matter into the air, contributing to air pollution and affecting air quality not only in the immediate vicinity but also in neighboring regions.
  • Carbon Emissions: Forest fires release significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

b) Socio-Economic Impact:

  • Threat to Human Health: Smoke from forest fires can have adverse effects on human health, causing respiratory problems and exacerbating existing conditions such as asthma.
  • Damage to Property: Forest fires can pose a direct threat to human settlements, infrastructure, and agricultural lands, leading to property damage and economic losses.
  • Impact on Livelihoods: Many communities in India depend on forests for their livelihoods, including for resources such as timber, non-timber forest products, and grazing lands. Forest fires can disrupt these livelihoods by destroying resources and reducing their availability.
  • Displacement of Communities: Severe forest fires may necessitate the evacuation of nearby communities, leading to temporary or permanent displacement and associated social and economic challenges.
  • Loss of Ecosystem Services: Forests provide important ecosystem services such as water regulation, soil conservation, and carbon sequestration. Forest fires can disrupt these services, leading to long-term ecological and socio-economic consequences.

Initiatives are taken by the Govt. of India for Forest Fire Risk Mitigation:

  • The Government of India has implemented several initiatives and measures to prevent and manage forest fires. Some of these initiatives include:

a) National Action Plan on Forest Fires

A National Action Plan on Forest Fires was launched in 2018 to minimize forest fires by informing, enabling, and empowering forest fringe communities and incentivizing them to work with the state forest departments (SFDs). The plan also aims to enhance the capabilities of forest personnel and institutions in fighting fires and swift recovery subsequent to fire incidences. Important components of the action plan for forest fire prevention and mitigation are as follows:

  • a . Forest Risk Zonation and Mapping: This is a scientific method for categorization of different areas on the basis of management interventions, allocating resources to priority areas and monitoring the effectiveness of measures to control fire risk.
  • b.Community Awareness: Every state forest department should spend a satisfactory amount of money for sensitization of the state in general and the community in particular.
  • c. Framework for biomass management for SFDs which says, “collection of dry woods, fallen pine needles should be encouraged to mitigate the surface fire.” Women Self-Help Groups (SHGs) should also be promoted for entrepreneurship generated by forest floor biomass.
  • d. Digitization of forest boundaries, promoting greater adoption of the Forest Fire Alert System, Improving Ground-based Detection, Dedicated phone line and Monitoring and evaluation are some technological enhancement methods suggested in the framework for the action plan.
  • e. MoEFCC is the monitoring and policy-making agency whereas SDFs will function as action authority. (National Action Plan on Forest Fires (NAPFF), 2018)

b) Forest Fire Prevention and Management (FPM)

  • A Centrally Sponsored Scheme on Forest Fire Prevention and Management (FPM) has been dedicated specifically to assisting the states in dealing with forest fires. It also provided the states flexibility to direct a portion of the National Afforestation Programme and Mission for Green India funding towards forest fire controlling related work.

c) Forest Rights Act 2005

  • Forest Rights Act clearly defines the forest area for the use of communities living in nearby areas for their individual and collective rights and it also mandates that use should be sustainable. The Act also says about the conservation of the forest by the right holding forest-dwelling communities. A similar kind of responsibility is also delineated for the communities practising shifting cultivation for the forest fire condition.

Conclusion and the way forward to reduce Forest Fires in India

  • Reducing forest fires requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the underlying causes of wildfires and enhances forest fire prevention, detection, and management capabilities. Here are some key strategies for moving forward:

a) Preventive Measures:

  • Implement strict regulations and enforcement mechanisms to prevent human-caused fires, such as prohibitions on burning waste and restrictions on activities like smoking and campfires during dry seasons.
  • Conduct controlled burns and prescribed fires in fire-prone areas to reduce fuel buildup and minimize the risk of uncontrolled wildfires.
  • Promote sustainable land use practices that reduce deforestation, forest degradation, and land conversion, which can increase the susceptibility of forests to fires.

b) Early Warning Systems:

  • Develop and enhance early warning systems for forest fires using technologies such as satellite imagery, remote sensing, weather monitoring, and fire danger indices.
  • Ensure timely dissemination of fire alerts and advisories to relevant stakeholders, including forest departments, firefighters, local communities, and other agencies involved in fire management.

c) Community Engagement and Capacity Building:

  • Involve local communities in forest fire prevention, detection, and management efforts through awareness campaigns, training programs, and the establishment of community-based fire management groups.
  • Provide training and resources to forest department personnel, firefighters, and volunteers to enhance their capacity for fire suppression, emergency response, and post-fire rehabilitation.

d) Forest Management Practices:

  • Implement sustainable forest management practices, including prescribed burning, fuel reduction treatments, and vegetation management, to create fire-resilient landscapes and reduce the intensity and severity of wildfires.
  • Promote biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration initiatives that enhance the resilience of forests to climate change and wildfire disturbances.

e) Research and Innovation:

  • Invest in research and innovation to develop new technologies, tools, and methodologies for forest fire prevention, detection, and suppression.
  • Foster collaboration between scientists, policymakers, practitioners, and stakeholders to share knowledge, best practices, and lessons learned in forest fire management.

f) Policy Support and Institutional Strengthening:

  • Develop and implement comprehensive policies, strategies, and action plans for forest fire management at the national, regional, and local levels.
  • Strengthen institutional capacities, coordination mechanisms, and partnerships among government agencies, research institutions, NGOs, and local communities to effectively address forest fire challenges.

By adopting an integrated and holistic approach that combines preventive measures, early warning systems, community engagement, sustainable forest management practices, research, and policy support, countries can reduce the incidence and impact of forest fires and build resilience to future wildfire events.


Practice Question for Mains

Topic: Disaster and Disaster Management (GS Mains Paper 3)

Q. To what extent do forest fires in India pose environmental, social, and economic challenges, and what strategies can be implemented to mitigate their impact effectively? (Answer in 250 words)

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