Mar 23, 2023

Forest fires disrupting ecosystems

Kishan Dhanrajani,   PGDM-2022 - 2024

Standing at the edge of my balcony, I still remember the strong smell of the smoke and the bright flames that lighted up the sky during one of my visits to my relative in the summer vacation. As a young kid, it was difficult to decipher what was happening. The crackling noise of burning trees and bushes was loud and scary. I realised later that it was forest fires which were dangerous and could destroy everything in their path. I used to wonder how we could protect our forests and our planet from these fires. It’s sad that we cannot stop them from happening. One fine day, I started working on this thought and explored more about forest fires — how these are caused, their effects and consequences and finally what we as an individual can do to prevent such disasters.

Forest Fire and Its Types

Forest fire is any uncontrolled and unpredictable burning of plants naturally, such as a forest or grassland, that consumes natural fuels and spreads due to environmental conditions like wind and topography. Forest fires are the most common incident in forests. Fuels are any flammable material in the surrounding, which also include trees, grasses, or forest waste. The greater the forest area’s fuel capacity, the stronger and more spread the fire. Sources of heat help ignite a fire; these make temperatures hot enough to ignite the fuel around the surrounding. During summers, when the forests dry out because of no rains over months, the forests get littered with all the dry waste it produces in the form of leaves and twinges, which burst into unstoppable fires spreading across huge areas, ignited by the slightest of spark.

The following are the types of forest fires [1] –

  1. Surface fire – A forest fire that burns the material only on the ground, spreads along the surface litter on the forest surface, and is engulfed by spreading flames.
  2. Underground fire –It is of low intensity, consuming the organic matter below the surface litter. It’s the thick mantle of organic matter that is found on top of the mineral soil, and fire spreads, consuming such materials. These spread slowly, and it becomes hard to detect and control such fires.
  3. Ground fire –It is caused by sub-surface organic fuels such as duff layers or tundra under the forest stands. This smouldering of ground fires sometimes increases and changes to ground fire based on the environmental conditions.
  4. Crown fire – A crown fire is one in which the crown of trees and shrubs burns and abstains from the ground. These are highly dangerous in coniferous forests because burning logs burn furiously and become difficult to control as well.
  5. Firestorms – These are the most rapidly spreading forest fires. These are intense fires over larger areas and go on spreading because of high winds. Temperatures inside these storms can be somewhere around 2000 deg F.

Causes of forest fires

Any fire needs to complete a triangle with three entities. These are fuel, oxygen, and heat sources. When this triangle gets completed, the fire cannot be resisted. Fuel and oxygen are in abundance in the forests. The only factor left to ignite these fires is the heat source which is the main cause of forest fires. Majorly two different types of heat sources exist:

  1. Natural causes – Something like lightning can set up a fire in regions with high atmospheric temperatures and dryness.
  2. Man-made causes – Man-made causes are usually the ones that are more dangerous and more common. These include cigarettes, electric sparks, or any other source of ignition produced either knowingly or unknowingly by humans.

Effects and consequences

  1. As many households and communities living in dense forest and foothill areas rely on the forest for food, fuel, and fodder, forest fires can have an adverse economic impact. Apart from being at risk of their houses getting damaged or worse yet, destroyed. This keeps people away from such areas which are otherwise perfectly habitable and makes them economically backwards.
  2. Small shrubs and grasses which are known to prevent soil erosion and landslides are destroyed. This leads to a cascading set of problems which pose a threat to both human and animal life.
  3. Forest fires release toxic gas emissions and smoke that have a serious negative impact on human health in the immediate as well as long term.
  4. The destruction of trees caused by such fires can impact the balance of nature in these areas, leading to untimely rainfalls and in extreme cases even cloudbursts, which can be extremely devastating and lead to tremendous loss of life and property.
  5. Animals become disoriented in cities because of wildfires that burn their habitat. This again poses a threat to human life, especially small children who are incapable of protecting themselves.
  6. These fires ruin the vegetation, soil quality, and overall flora and fauna.

Deadliest forest fires reported

The top 3 world’s deadliest forest fires in 21st century:

  1. Siberian Taiga Fires – It happened in Russia in 2003 in which 55 million acres of forest were burnt down into ashes. It was caused because it was one of the hottest summers in Europe. Its emissions reached Kyoto, which was thousands of miles away from the forests. Its effects are still seen in present day environmental studies on ozone layer depletion.
  2. Northwest Territories Fires – This one is the most recent one. It happened in 2014 summers in Canada spread into 150 different forest fires. Cumulatively spread across 8.5 million acres of land and around 13 of these were caused by humans.
  3. Alaska Fire Season – 2004 season of Alaska forest fires was the worst on record in the history of US in terms of area burnt down. This season had around 700 fires, out of which 215 were caused due to lightning, 426 were roughly started by humans.

Mitigation measures by the government

The above-mentioned deadliest forest fire stats show that a lot of forest fires are caused by humans. For this governments across the world have started well-coordinated and integrated fire management programs that include [2] –

  1. Prevention of human caused fires by education and environmental modification.
  2. More emphasis on people participation through joint forest fire management
  3. Prompt detection of forest fires through ground patrolling, and well-coordinated observation points
  4. Remote sensing technology for fire detection
  5. Ensuring easy and timely availability of firefighting resources

It is high time that we realised the importance of planet and all the organisms living in it. We should mend our ways and take measures to protect the environment and their livelihoods. That forest fire experienced by my own eyes in my childhood, has stayed in my memory ever since. I could sense the helplessness surrounding everyone when they could not do anything as the fire grew too big. They could have averted it from happening by being cautious and following the right measures.


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