HYDERABAD: Telangana witnessed as many as 13,259 forest fire incidents this year, which resulted in the burning down of 17,233 hectares of forest in the State, as per the forest fire data for 2019 by the State Forest Department.
These numbers are for the months from January to May, which is when the majority of the forest fires occur.
Among districts, the highest number of forest fires have occurred in Bhupalpally (3,606), Kothagudem (2,484), Mahabubabad (1,258), Nirmal (1,152), Nagarkurnool (732), Asifabad (708), Nizamabad (637) and Adilabad (658).
As per the forest department’s ‘Forest Fire prevention and management strategy 2019’, 95 per cent forest fires in the State are man-made.
However, these statistics can hardly be looked at in isolation.
They also point to other major environmental concerns including the encroachment of forest lands, burning of crop residue and lack of strict regulation on beedi leaves collection.
Speaking to district forest officers from the most affected districts revealed that most of the forest fires are due to two reasons - fires which technically occur inside a forest, but actually occur over encroached forest land where agriculture is being practised; the fires set by beedi leaf collectors inside various forest areas.
“Many a time, forest fires occur inside encroached forest areas. Although these are demarcated as forest lands technically, they actually encroach lands where people have been practising agriculture. At the end of each farming season, they burn the crop residues. These fires are detected and sent as forest fire alerts. Mostly, the residue being burnt in these months would be of the cotton crop,” Mahabubabad District Forest Officer Kishta Goud said.
Forest encroachment is a serious problem in Telangana.
There have been many incidents recently of forest staff coming under attack by locals while preventing encroachments.
In the financial year 2018-19, 715 cases of forest encroachments were booked by the forest department, pertaining to the encroachment of 1,724 Ha forest land.
The highest number of cases (221) were booked in Warangal forest circle, for the encroachment of 747 Ha forest area. In Kothagudem circle, of which Mahabubabad district is a part, 189 cases were booked for the encroachment of 470 Ha forest land.
Another major concern here is that of the rampant burning of crop residues, which generates a lot of air pollution in the form of harmful gases, Particulate Matter (PM) and Black carbon.
The PM generated through the burning of crop residues remains suspended for a long period in the atmosphere, affecting not just the environment, but also the health of the people living in nearby areas.
Burning of crop residues has been found to be one of the main reasons behind the high air pollution in Delhi.
Kothagudem District Forest Officer S Rambabu pointed out the other major factor behind forest fires in the State.
“Most are man-made ground fires, started by beedi leaf collectors. For those plants to grow well, it is necessary that they be pruned. But this requires manual labour and financial investment. They instead resort to setting fire to ground level vegetation inside forest, thus negating the requirement of pruning,” he stated.
Rambabu added that these fires often spread over hilly slopes that are difficult to reach due to their rough terrain. “It’s very difficult to control fires in such scenarios. To prevent such incidents, pruning of the beedi plants can be made mandatory,” he said.
How do fires affect forests?
According to Mahabubabad District Forest Officer Kishta Goud, forest fires result in the dwindling of biodiversity and promote only the growth of fire-resistant species.
Also, the fires burn the grass and low-level vegetation that are important food resources for herbivores.
Kothagudem DFO Rambabu added that as all these fires were ground fires that occur every year, there are forest patches with only adult trees and a very few number of young trees. “Saplings get burnt in such fires, affecting the regeneration of forests,” he said.
While the government is aiming to improve forest cover through ‘Haritha Haaram’, it also should work on protecting the existing forests from such fires