‘Smoke was so thick’: Forest fires scorch Indian mountains amid heatwave

Hundreds of large fires have ravaged the hilly state of Uttarakhand in recent months, and experts warn worse could follow.

A fire burns in a distant forest in the Kangra valley in Dharamshala, India, Thursday, June 13, 2024. Fires are common in pine forests of the area during the hot dry months before the monsoon rains. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
A fire burns in a distant forest in the Kangra valley in Dharamshala, India, Thursday, June 13, 2024. Fires are common in pine forests of the area during the hot dry months before the monsoon rains [Ashwini Bhatia/AP Photo]

Nainital, India – On the evening of April 27, Madhavi Daruwala noticed the air around her housing complex in the northern Indian town of Nainital suddenly grow heavier with smoke.

“The smoke was so thick, it was burning our eyes. My daughter has asthma and she had to go back on her inhaler [to be able to breathe normally],” Daruwala told Al Jazeera.

A longtime resident of the scenic Himalayan town that is a popular tourist destination in the state of Uttarakhand, Daruwala knew immediately what had happened: The nearby forests and vegetation were on fire again.

At least 1,313 large fires have ravaged the hills of Uttarakhand since November – among the highest count in the country. Officials estimate the fires have already damaged nearly 1,100 hectares (about 2,718 acres) – about three times the size of New York’s Central Park – of forest land in the state.

Nainital residents say the frequency and intensity of the fires have worsened in recent years, and that the fires are reaching increasingly closer to human settlements.

That’s what happened that evening.

When she looked out her window, Daruwala saw a large flaming line of burning vegetation inching nearer to her apartment complex. “It came so close to our habitations that the [water] tank of one of the buildings got burned,” she said.

The panicked residents of the area quickly mobilised, beating down the fire while the forest department sent people to help them.

“We were lucky we could stop the fire from reaching us. Because it is not easy, you can’t simply throw a bucket of water on a burning tree. These are pine trees that secrete resin which is used to make turpentine and is highly flammable,” Daruwala said.

“You have to rake earth over the fire and starve it, all the while hoping that the breeze doesn’t aggravate it or blow it in another direction.”

Are heatwaves to blame?

The region has witnessed reduced winter precipitation in recent years. That in turn has left vegetation dry. “Then there is El Nino [unusually warm ocean temperatures that affect climate] that is adding to the dryness and heat,” Raghu Murtugudde, climate scientist and professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, told Al Jazeera.

It is an explosive mix – literally.

Experts say heatwaves have contributed to rising fire incidents across India. In 2023, India experienced some of its worst heatwaves on record since 1901, with temperatures in parts of the country touching 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). This year, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has already declared multiple heatwaves, with the capital of New Delhi recording temperatures as high as 52.9C (127.2F) in May, resulting in more than 100 people dead.

The lowered soil moisture creates what is known as a vapour pressure deficit, Murtugudde explained. “When the air isn’t saturated, it sucks out moisture from plants as well,” he said. That in turn leaves the vegetation even drier. In such conditions, he said, even a cigarette butt thrown carelessly can start a large forest fire.

According to the Forest Survey of India (FSI), nearly 10.66 percent of the country’s forest cover is under “extremely to very highly fire-prone zone”.

Uttarakhand state authorities have said the fires are man-made, and at least three individuals have been arrested. “In the Indian context, almost all forest fires are man-made,” said Mohan Chandra Pargaien, an Indian forest official in the southern Telangana state, which too has been experiencing frequent fires.

Locals and animal herders across the country are often known to burn the stubble that remains after grain is harvested, as well as dry grass. In Uttarakhand, they also look to clear the fallen pine needles to make way for fresh vegetation that is used as pasture for their animals, Pargaien said.

Pargaien hails from Nainital and is familiar with the increase in the frequency of forest fires. “We are seeing this in the Deccan [southern region of India] as well, where we have grasslands that dry out in the summer, and villagers set fire to the husks hoping to grow more lush pastures for their animals,” he shared.

Increasing heat adds to the challenges that officials face in controlling wildfires, the forest official said.

‘The forest was not always this dry’

Daruwala, the Nainital resident, also added that the state had received little to no rains this past season creating water shortages. The rains also serve as fire extinguishers.

“The rains played a big role last year in helping stop the fires. But this year, there has been lesser rains. The climate has been drier,” she said. “The forest was not always this dry.”

Human activity along with with worsening heat and climate patterns make for a fatal combination.

“With Uttarakhand, it’s a hilly terrain, with high-intensity winds shifting fast. Also, a lot of the trees are pine, which are highly flammable. These factors contribute to the fire spreading faster and also make it challenging to control,” she said.

Prevention and preparedness

There is a need for long-term planning, Murtugudde, the climate scientist, said. The existing climate change predictions, he said, are inadequate in helping countries like India prepare for such calamities.

“They don’t give you very location-specific information. Nor do they factor in geopolitical scenarios like the Israel-Palestine war or the Ukraine-Russian conflict,” he said, referring to the 2100 projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that predict warming between 1.2 and 4.1 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The wars in Gaza and Ukraine are believed to have led to an expansion in greenhouse emissions – the weapons industry, which has been in overdrive, is a major polluter.

“It’s meaningless to imagine too far into the future,” Murtugudde said.

“The best thing countries like India can do is focus on developing short-term projections for the next 10 to 15 years that factor local data, because the longer the period you want to integrate [for predictions], the coarser the resolutions of your models will be,” he said.

“It was well-known that this season was going to be dry and hot because we knew that 2023 was warm, but we don’t know yet what will come in the next decade. That should guide the forest protection management in its efforts for prevention,” he added.

Since many of the fires are man-made, Pargaien said more efforts made towards raising awareness of forest conservation would help, along with steps to minimise activities like stubble burning. “However, we also need to first address the core issues on why people are starting fires, which is livelihood,” said Pargaien.

Many communities depend on the forest and the surrounding lands, specifically to support animal husbandry and other allied activities such as the gathering of wood for fuel.

Though the fire did not reach Daruwala’s apartment, the air in her home remained hazy for days. “It has to burn out, and along the way can cause tremendous damage,” she said. “My heart goes out to all the birds and wildlife that lived in the forests. We have seen some injured animals, but we don’t know how many creatures have died.”

“When it comes to a conflict between humans and animals or a forest, human interests take precedence. But we must not forget that we have entered the forest, and it is our duty to look after it,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera