Why are Wildfires intensifying in Europe ?
- Europe is battling intense wildfires with countries like Spain, Greece and France struggling to stamp out fires and contain the damage.
- Thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, and thousands of hectares of forest land burned to the ground amid a searing heatwave.
How do forests catch fire?
- A wildfire is a major fire that breaks out unpredictably in combustible environments such as dry forests or bush, and often burns uncontrollably over a large area and length of time.
- A forest fire can be triggered by natural factors such as prolonged hot, dry weather or lightning strikes, or human carelessness.
- Wildfires require a “fire triangle” of fuel, oxygen, and heat in order to grow and spread, and can be extinguished when at least one of the three elements is removed.
- One of the reasons wildfires cause immense destruction is the speed of their spread, which depends on the weather, winds, fuel, and topography.
- High temperatures and droughts have contributed to devastating wildfires in California, Australia, Brazil, and southern Europe.
- Slopes, especially those that face the sun and retain more heat, are more prone to catching fire.
Why are wildfires worsening?
- Wildfires require right climatic conditions, burnable fuel and a spark.
- Rising temperatures suck moisture out of plants, creating an abundance of dry fuel.
- Drought and high heat can kill plants and dry out dead grass, and other material on the forest floor that fuel the fire once it starts sweeping through a patch.
- While dry vegetation is the burnable fuel that serves as kindling for fires, the spark is sometimes caused by lightning, at other times by accident or recklessness of the local population.
Note : A 2018 fire in California in the US, for instance, was started when a truck blew out its tire and its rim scraped the pavement, sending out sparks.
Reasons – Europe
- As for Europe, the region has been hit by an early fire season due to an unusually dry, hot spring that left the soil parched. Authorities attribute this to climate change. They add that the fires are being fanned by earlier-than-usual extreme temperatures and drought conditions in some parts.
- Spain, Germany, and Greece have been facing the worst of Europe’s extraordinary heat wave that has seen temperatures rising to record highs even before the official start of the summer (with the summer solstice, June 21), and wildfires have ravaged all three countries.
- Climate change is estimated to have made heat waves 5 to 10 times worse than they were about a century ago. Global warming, a man-made phenomenon, is leading to extreme weather events such as hotter temperatures, droughts, famines, rain, and floods, which disrupt natural weather cycles.
- Europe’s earliest heatwave this year sent the mercury past 40 degrees Celsius, temperatures that are expected only in July or August.
What factors make forest fires a concern?
- Forests play an important role in mitigation and adaptation to climate change. They act as a sink, reservoir and source of carbon. A healthy forest stores and sequesters more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem. In India, with 1.70 lakh villages in close proximity to forests (Census 2011), the livelihood of several crores of people is dependent on fuelwood, bamboo, fodder, and small timber.
- Forest fires can have multiple adverse effects on the forest cover, soil, tree growth, vegetation, and the overall flora and fauna. Fires render several hectares of forest useless and leave behind ash, making it unfit for any vegetation growth.
- Heat generated during the fire destroys animal habitats. Soil quality decreases with the alteration in their compositions. Soil moisture and fertility, too, is affected. Thus forests can shrink in size. The trees that survive fire often remain stunted and growth is severely affected.
- While fire poses a direct risk to people’s life and property, wildfire smoke, and particularly the concentration of PM 2.5, or particles smaller than 2.5 microns, can also affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Indian Context :Uttarakhand Forest Fires
- Based on previous fire incidents and recorded events, forests of the Northeast and central India regions are the most vulnerable areas to forest fires.
- Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are the two states that witness the most frequent forest fires annually.
What Causes Forest Fires ?
- In India, forest fires are most commonly reported during March and April, when the ground has large quantities of dry wood, logs, dead leaves, stumps, dry grass and weeds that can make forests easily go up in flames if there is a trigger.
- Under natural circumstances, extreme heat and dryness, friction created by rubbing of branches with each other also have been known to initiate fire.
- In Uttarakhand, the lack of soil moisture too is being seen as a key factor.
- In two consecutive monsoon seasons (2019 and 2020), rainfall has been deficient by 18% and 20% of the seasonal average, respectively.
- But, forest officials say most fires are man-made, sometimes even deliberately caused.
- For example, in Odisha – in Simlipal forest, villagers are known to set dry leaves to fire in order to collect mahua flowers, which go into preparation of a local drink.
Why are forest fires difficult to control?
- The locality of the forest and access to it pose hurdles in initiating firefighting efforts. During peak season, shortage of staff is another challenge in dispatching firefighting teams.
- Timely mobilization of forest staff, fuel and equipment, depending on the type of fire, through the thick forests remain challenges.
- As it is impossible to transport heavy vehicles loaded with water into the thick forests, a majority of fire dousing is initiated manually, using blowers and similar devices. But there have been incidents when forest fires were brought under control using helicopter services.
- Wind speed and direction play a critical role in bringing a forest fire under control. The fire often spreads in the direction of the winds and towards higher elevations.
What efforts are being taken to protect forests from fire?
- Since 2004, the FSI developed the Forest Fire Alert System to monitor forest fires in real time.
- In its advanced version launched in January 2019, the system now uses satellite information gathered from NASA and ISRO.
- Real-time fire information from identified fire hotspots is gathered using MODIS sensors (1km by 1km grid) and electronically transmitted to FSI.
- This information is then relayed via email at state, district, circle, division, range, beat levels.
- Users of this system in the locality are issued SMS alerts.