Calcutta Notebook


There is a small mountain in front of this writer's house in Uttarakhand. Women of the village make a huge effort to burn the grass every year. They light up the grass. If it does not spread, they gather more grass and light it up again nearby. They toil many hours trying to burn the grass. They say new grass grows better and quicker once the rains fall if the grass has been burnt. Forest officials confirm this perception of the village people. They tell that certain types of grasses have knots in their roots. These are called rhizomes. Such plants are much benefited by small fire. It works somewhat like the heating pad works on human body. A small fire burns up the top of the plants but gives vigour to the roots. These plants grow afresh much more stronger after a fire. The process is similar to the burning of sugar cane fields after harvesting. The heat from burning gives energy to the roots and new shoots come up. Studies by agricultural scientists conform that lighting up the sugar cane field after harvesting improves the yield in the next crop.

This type of low fire does not harm the trees. It burns near the ground. The tree trunks are blackened but their leaves remain green. This burning is good for all the stakeholders—the grass, the trees and the human beings. The fact that the grass grows and is burnt every year means that the practice is "sustainable." This practice is not limited to India. A post on says that Native Americans used forest fires to increase the growth of grasses that attracted wild animals which they could hunt.

Fire is part of the natural process. A report by the Conservancy Global Fire Initiative says that many plant and animal species have evolved in the presence of fire. Fire is essential for conserving these species for example, in grasslands. On the other hand, the same fire has a negative impact on moist broadleaf forests. Thus fire actually helps certain species and harms other species. By allowing fires to burn people support the fire-dependent species. By stomping out fires people again support fire susceptible species. Fire is not "bad" for all plant and animal species.

The United States Fire Service was previously trying to stomp out every forest fire. That has changed now. A report in USA Today tells of the Payette National Forest. "It was a real long season, but we got some nice fire effects," said the fire management officer commenting on the more than 150 fires that burned about 70,000 acres. "We're pretty happy with what we got," he said. Reason is that these "small" fires have burnt up the dead combustible material and prevented a bigger conflagration. Thus, the US Forest Service is becoming more comfortable co-existing with fire rather than trying to stomp out every fire with all the men and material at their command. Their reasoning is that fire clears out underbrush and small trees and keeps small fires from growing into the kind of large, catastrophic blazes. They now say that the decades of aggressively fighting fires was a mistake because it allowed forests to become overcrowded and ripe for fires that are nearly impossible to control.

Dr S P Sati of HNB University at Srinagar, Uttarakhand says that a system of "controlled burning" was practiced in the forests of Uttarakhand during colonial times. "Fire lines" were made. Undergrowth was cleared along the periphery of a specified area so that the fire did not spread beyond the fire line. Then the designated forest was set on fire. This led to clearing of the undergrowth and prevented large fires. The Forest Department has abandoned this scientific method, it appears, for cost cutting and pushed the forests into huge fires.

The devastation seen in Uttara-khand this season may be due to such buildup of unburnt combustible material. The best option is to burn the dry material regularly and save the trees; or to allow the same to accumulate until it becomes devastating and devours the trees as well. Village women have understood this grim reality from traditional knowledge hence they burn the grass every year. They may have helped in the prevention of these large fires by lighting smalI fires. The presently seen fires have perhaps become big because the small fires were not lit as frequently as was required.

Another contributing factor is the extensive use of explosives for the making of roads, rail lines and hydropower projects. Vibrations from these blasting cause fissures in the aquifers and the water drains out. This leads to drying of water sources, depletion of moisture in the topsoil and reduction in the living grasses and shrubs in the forests. The resulting dryness provides an ideal ground to develop into a big fire. An additional problem is that the Pine Forests are hugely fire prone. The pine needles catch fires easily. The pine trees can withstand the fire but it engulfs the broad leaf mixed forests nearby.

Commentators have blamed timber mafia for the fires. The fact is that large scale illegal timber felling is not taking place in the state of Uttarakhand. This is good sensationalism but far from truth. Blame is also being laid on two successive years of drought. But this is a natural happening. Blame is being laid on global warming. Indeed this is a contributing factor, no doubt. But the forest authorities must help the forests face the warming rather than contribute to the problem by promoting the use of explosives and planting pine forests.

The way forward is first to commission a study regarding the benefits and costs of "controlled firing" that was practiced earlier. Then implement this policy in cooperation with local people. Two, fire lines should be made across the forests before the onset of the summer season to prevent devastating fires from spreading. Three, the use of explosives must be banned in the hills. Four, all pine forests must be removed and replaced with mixed forests.

Vol. 48, No. 50, Jun 19 - 25, 2016