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Forests in Indian state of Telangana looking at a disastrous fire year

by Balu Pulipaka, Deccan Chronicle (Hyderabad, India) |

Every day, on an average, Telangana's forests have been losing to fires every day the equivalent of 57.5 times the area of the popular KBR National Park in the city. Or, in terms of another popular Hyderabad landmark, the state is daily losing forests equal to 19.5 times the area of Hussainsagar Lake to fires.

This year, until April 4, Telangana lost a whopping 20,471.54 hectares – 50,585 acres – to forest fires.

Nearly all of these fires, except 600 out of the 21,439 fire alerts received by the state through satellite imagery since Jan. 1, have been set off by people. A few accidentally, and most, deliberately.

The 600 exceptions include controlled burns by forest department staff creating fire lines, and burning fallen leaves, dried grasses to prevent any possible fire, accidental or otherwise, from going out of control.

The current year, has been particularly a bad one in terms of forest fires. In 2018, during the 'forest fire season' that begins at the start of the year and ends in June, when the monsoon rains typically set in, Telangana reported 13,002 forest fire alerts. In 2019, this number was 13,911, and in 2020 it was 12,442 forest fire alerts.

This year, with three more months to go for the fire season to end, there have already been 21,439 fire alerts. This leap in fire alerts is being attributed to the lush growth of grasses and shrubs in 2020, thanks to the copious rains the state received last year. The then green sheets of undergrowth, are now bone dry, the perfect tinder for fires.

Most fires are set by people. This year, a great number of these fires are a result of people setting alight the undergrowth under Mahua trees. Last year's rains resulted in a boom of sorts in flowering by Mahua trees this season, officials say.

The flowers of these trees are extremely popular among tribals living outside of forest areas as well as the forest-dwelling tribal communities for brewing homemade liquor, a traditional activity enthusiastically pursued every summer.

Mahua collectors set off ground fires because it becomes easy to spot the bright yellow flowers against the black burnt ground. Searching for the flowers amidst the sometimes waist-high grasses is a near-impossible task, particularly with the wild grasses capable of inflicting painful nicks on the human body. Once picked, the flowers are sun-dried before becoming the vital ingredient for brewing liquor.

Though an efficient fire alert system exists, with the alerts being issued every day by the Forest Survey of India which has two satellites keeping an eye on such fires across India, battling them and putting them out is a tough task, according to several forest field staff and fire watchers that Deccan Chronicle spoke with.

"Sometimes, when we get an alert, we reach that spot using the GIS coordinates but find it has burnt itself out. At other times, the fires are raging and it takes hours to beat one down. The equipment, including fire beaters, is heavy and before we get to a fire, we often have to walk many kilometres in the hot sun or the dead of the night," one fire watcher in Nagarkurnool district said.

Since it is next to impossible to carry water to put out a fire in a forest, staff rely on fire beaters, or just branches with green leaves from the nearby trees, to beat the fire down. "It is very hard work and Mahua collectors and others do not realise how hot it gets and how tiring and dangerous the fires can be," another fire watcher said.

In fact, just how dangerous the forest fires can be, came to the fore tragically this past March when three of the 11 Chenchu tribals, caught in a ground fire when out digging for 'nannari' roots in the Amrabad tiger reserve, lost their lives to the severe burns they suffered.

Another big cause of fires are pilgrims making their way to temples through forests in the state, with the tiger reserve again presenting the perfect examples. Every year, in the days running up to Maha Shivaratri festival, the largest tiger reserve in the country sees hundreds of fires set by pilgrims walking through the forest as they make their way to the Shiva temple in Srisailam, across the Krishna river in Andhra Pradesh. "They listen to no one, set the fires to keep wild animals at bay as they walk through the forest," a forest guard said.