Goa State with the geographical area of 3,702 sq km has more than 60 percent area under forest cover as per India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021 published by the Forest Survey of India (FSI).
As regards forest cover as percentage of geographical area, it ranks ninth in the country and remarkably enough, it is the only state amongst these nine to have recorded an increase in forest cover from 2019 to 2021.
Considering the location as well as status of Goa’s forests predominantly as a part of Western Ghats and one of the global biodiversity hotspots, its protection from fire becomes extremely important.
Despite the fact that Goa has a small geographical area, the number of SMS subscription to the Forest Survey of India’s existing forest fire alert system is 502 which, compared with the figures of the nine highest forest cover percentage states, is at second rank, next only to Manipur.
The ‘alert level’ in Goa is indicated by the FSI to be at the forest beat level, which is the smallest unit of administration in the Forest Department. This reflects in general the awareness of the State regarding use of ‘FSI’ alert system.
FSI captures the occurrence of forest fires and sends alerts by using MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectra-radiometer) sensor on-board Aqua and Terra Satellite of NASA and SNPP-VIIRS (Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership - Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) sensor, at least six times in 24 hours.
The fire hotspots detected are processed using standard algorithm. However, the resolutions of MODIS and SNPP-VIIRS are 1 km x 1 km and 375 m x 375 m respectively which put a limitation to the detection of fires that are small in spread or that have just started. Needless to say, timely detection assumes prime importance so far as protection of forests from fire is concerned.
FSI has also developed and launched a satellite based automated system of monitoring for large forest fire (LFF) events in 2019. It uses SNPP-VIIRS sensor (375 m x 375 m resolution) fire hotspot data and involves continuous monitoring and tracking of LLF and escalates alerts to get additional support from agencies like District Administration, Armed forces etc. For the whole country, state-wise details of LFF events show that during fire season 2020-2021 (Nov 2020 to June 2021), a total of 21,142 LFF events were detected and tracked by FSI.
Out of this about 59.43% LFF were extinguished or contained within 24 hours, 37.72% were active for one to five days, 2.70% were active for six to ten days and 32 LFF (0.15%) continued for more than 11 to 15 days. During this time, only three LLFs were detected in Goa state and the active period of two LFFs was less than 24 hours.
The Van Agni Geo portal managed by FSI provides the locational data of forest fire on a district map and also the near Real-Time Forest fire detected in the last three days. Forest Fire Danger Ratings are also available on the portal.
It is however important to understand that an active forest fire has to attain at any point of time an optimum size for getting detected by a 375m x 375m resolution based system.
Such detection may be delayed, especially when it is a ground fire sweeping the forest floor. The delay can damage huge quantum of biodiversity, along with the eco processes therein before the fire is detected as a LFF.
Unless its resolution level is improved, the data generated by this system will remain inadequate to create a strategy to formulate fire management plans.
The National Institute of Disaster Management, Ministry of Home Affairs came up with a document on Forest Fire Disaster Management in 2014, but neither its contents including suggestions have been found to be disseminated to the field personnel of the forestry sector, nor has there been an attempt to support the sector with resources along these lines.
A study in Melghat forests of the adjoining state of Maharashtra revealed that forest fires are caused to increase the availability of fresh flush of fodder for cattle during the summer months (Cattle owners do it, because most of the Gochar lands meant for cattle-grazing have either been encroached or distributed).
Fire is also caused accidentally due to jumping of fire from burning of agricultural residue; spread of fire lighted to keep the wild animals away from crop and cattle; un-extinguished cigarettes and match sticks thrown by travellers, picnickers, nomadic grazers, villagers or even forest labourers.
For want of an appropriate regulatory system, Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra with almost all forest area assigned for management by community under the Forest Rights Act, has had maximum number of fires (10,577) in the country as per the ISFR 2021.
The need to have a well-thought out and appropriate statutory framework for protecting natural resources is amply illustrated by the example of recent legislation regarding bamboo in our country.
There was a demand that bamboo grown in private land should not require a felling permission or transit permission from forest department. The objective was to promote bamboo farming in private areas. Instead of exempting just such bamboos, Section 2(7) of Indian Forest Act, 1927 was amended in 2016 to delete bamboo from the category of ‘tree’.
Due to the amendment, bamboo felling and removal ceased to remain an offence under IFA even in reserve forests. As per ISFR 2021, bamboo bearing area has decreased within five years by more than 10,594 sq km, which is about seven percent of total bamboo bearing area of the country. Against this background, the recent attempt to decriminalise the fire related offences under IFA perhaps needs a re-look.
Even ground fires threaten ecological balance, natural regeneration is killed or dies back, volume increment of various species reduces, timber quality is affected by scorching and fungal infection, soil moisture is decreased and litter decomposition gets affected, water holding capacity of soil goes down and most of the rainwater is washed away removing top fertile soil of the forest.
Prevention being better than cure, it is necessary to identify the reasons behind forest fires and develop and implement comprehensive fire management plans that replace the proverbial fire-fighting resorted to year after year.
(The writer is former
Principal chief Conservator
of Forests, Maharashtra)