BHUBANESWAR: A prolonged dry spell coupled with an ominous rise in February temperature has triggered unprecedented forest fires in central and eastern Indian states, including Odisha. Similipal Tiger Reserve, one of the first tiger habitats to come up in India, has been caught in the inferno.
Even as a tweet from Akshita Bhanj Deo, scion of the Mayurbhanj royal family acted as an SOS drawing attention of three Union Ministers, the problem appears to be manifold.
Absence of post-monsoon rains last year led to a drier winter cut short by a rise in temperature across the State in February which acted as a perfect platform for the wildfire. According Forest Survey of India reports, in the 13 years between 2004-05 and 2017, the State had reported 26,719 fire points.
Consider this. Between January 1 and March 3, 2021, Odisha has reported a whopping 10,270 forest fire points. Against just 463 fire points in the February 1-March 3 window in 2020, the State has recorded 7,071 incidents this year. The total area affected by fire this season stands at 4,750 hectare.
In Similipal, the north and south parts of the TR have reported close to 220 fire points. Though forest fire is a regular affair at the key tiger reserve which is a biodiversity hotspot, this time the problems are more towards the fringe areas. PCCF (wildlife) Shashi Paul is already camping at Similipal for ground monitoring.The hot climate between February and June continues to remain one of the major factors of forest fires but practice of controlled fire for mahua and kendu leaves collection, timber collection and cultivation are other reasons in the State. “People set forest on fire advertently or inadvertently and dealing with such man-made crisis has always been a challenge,” said former PCCF and HoFF Sandeep Tripathy.
Interestingly though, the unprecedented rise in incidence of fire is not limited to Odisha alone. FSI data shows that central and southern Indian states have reported an equally menacing rise in fire points this February. If Jharkhand had reported just 116 forest fires in the February 1-March 3 period last year, this year, the number has jumped to 2,217. Andhra Pradesh had recorded 632 cases last year and this time, it has over 5,677 fire points. Similar is the pattern with Madhya Pradesh where 4,921 fire points have been reported against 249 last year. Much of it is attributed to the climate change.
But closer home, there are issues of stubble burning as well as lighting invasive weeds in farmlands closer to Similipal. Sources say increasing mechanised harvesting is a reason farmers are now resorting to stubble burning which has contributed to the rise in forest fires.
To prevent growth of weeds near habitations, villagers are setting them on fire to protect crops.“The changing agriculture and livelihood practices in villages closer to Similipal are reasons no one is looking at,” said an officer.
Meanwhile, to check the fire, Forest Department has intensified operations. In Rairangpur wildlife division, DFO Arun Kumar Mishra informed, 85 squads armed with 62 air-blower machines are manning the 308 km fire lines. In Baripada division, Divisional Forest Officer Santosh Joshi said, seven squads comprising 120 forest personnel, protection assistance and 37 air-blower machines are engaged to extinguish the fire.