• 07-May-2023

Why did Goa see a spate of forest fires in March?

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  • The state forest department's report suggests that a conducive environment and extreme weather conditions — deficient rainfall in the preceding season, unusually high temperatures, low moisture and humidity — led to the fires.
  • According to the inquiry report, 74 fire incidents — 32 of which affected three wildlife sanctuaries — were reported in the first fortnight of March. 
  • A forest department probe into the bushfires that impacted an area of about 4 sq km in Goa in the first half of March is learnt to have concluded that the fires were largely triggered by natural causes, confirming the central government’s submission to Parliament last month that a “prolonged dry spell, unprecedented high temperatures, and low humidity” caused “sporadic” fire incidents in the state.
  • Helicopters of the Navy and Air Force flew multiple sorties to douse fires on inaccessible hilltops in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • Opposition parties and environmentalists have alleged the fires were “man-made”, deliberately lit by vested interests. Even the state Forest Minister, Vishwajit Rane, had said in March that the fires were “man-made”.
  • The opposition renewed its demand for a high-level investigation after a new fire was reported in South Goa earlier this month. Leader of Opposition Yuri Alemao alleged that a “fire mafia” could be behind the recent fires at Paroda Hills and in the Chapoli dam area.
  • “These fires cannot be termed as isolated incidents. There is a systematic game plan to destroy green cover with an eye on land to be used for real estate,” Alemao said.

What did the forest department inquiry find?

  • According to the inquiry report, 74 fire incidents— 32 of which affected three wildlife sanctuaries — were reported in the first fortnight of March. A total of 418 hectares of private land, reserve forests, comunidade land, and protected areas were affected, including more than 320 hectares of forest land.
  • The report suggests that a conducive environment and extreme weather conditions — deficient rainfall in the preceding season, unusually high temperatures, low moisture and humidity — led to the fires.
  • Even so, 34 FIRs, mostly against unknown persons, have been registered under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984, and relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code, the report says.

What is the connection between weather and fires?

  • Very little rain in Goa since October last year, along with heat-wave-like conditions and low humidity, created conditions that were ripe for forest fires. Once the carpet of dry leaves on the hilltops caught fire, the flames were fanned and spread by high winds.
  • Officials said of late, incidents of forest fires in Goa during the summer have been more in the years following those of poor monsoon rain. A similar pattern has been seen in Karnataka as well, the officials said.
  • The officials acknowledged that some fires near cashew plantations may have been caused by owners lighting fires. However, this was not a widespread practice, they said. “Of the more than 70 forest fires reported in March, only 4-5 cases have been reported in which people may have deliberately lit fires,” an official said.

Does Goa have a history of forest fires?

  • Minor surface fires that burn undergrowth and dead organic matter on the forest floor are common due to the slash-and-burn techniques used by villagers to clear grazing land for cattle. Cashew farmers often start minor constrained fires to clear weeds and reduce undergrowth. There have been instances where fires have been traced back to the stray beedi or cigarette.
  • “Goa does not experience crown fires (caused by friction of trees) which mostly occur abroad. Surface fires are common in moist deciduous forests of Goa,” an official said.
  • The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021 published by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) classifies 100% of Goa’s forest cover as “less fire prone”. In 2022, 15 minor forest fires were reported in Goa between March and May; 34 fire incidents were reported in the summer of 2021.
  • The FSI’s satellite-based forest fire monitoring system detected 42,799 forest fires around the country between March 1 and March 12 this year, more than double the 19,929 fires over the same period last year. February was exceptionally dry this year — according to India Meteorological Department (IMD) data, the country as a whole received just 7.2 mm rainfall, 68% less than the long period average(LPA) of 22.7 mm for February, and the sixth lowest since 1901.

Why exactly are environmentalists worried?

  • Environmentalist Claude Alvares, director of the Goa Foundation, said, “I do not recall such a large number of forest fires in Goa in the last 40 years,” adding that vested interests may have lit fires to reduce forest density and clear land for real estate development.
  • “Some of these fires occurred in areas where activists have been pushing for a tiger reserve. If the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is notified as a tiger reserve, the area will become protected forest land, which cannot then be used for mining or other developmental purposes,” said an environmentalist, requesting anonymity.
  • Environmentalist Rajendra Kerkar alleged that villagers whose forest right claims are yet to be settled, have been involved in clearing forests to expand the area for horticulture.
  • “Since 2019, incidents of forest fires have repeatedly taken place in Goa, but the forest department has not provided any direction for operational planning at the field level. In Sattari, the expansion of horticultural land by cutting forests and burning dry vegetation is going on uncontrolled,” he said.

And has India as a whole seen rising incidents of forest fires?

  • An April 2022 study, Managing Forest Fires in a Changing Climate, published by the public policy think tank Council of Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), has noted a tenfold increase in forest fires over the past two decades and says more than 62% of Indian states are prone to high-intensity forest fires. Forest fires have become more frequent and more intense, and have occurred in a larger number of months over this period.
  • Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Telangana, and the Northeastern states are most prone to forest fires, the study found. Mizoram has seen the highest incidence of forest fires over the last two decades, and 95% of its districts are forest fire hotspots.
  • The ISFR 2021 estimates that more than 36% of the country’s forest cover is prone to frequent forest fires, 6% is ‘very highly’ fire-prone, and almost 4% is ‘extremely’ prone. The forest fire season normally extends from November to June, and the majority of fires are caused by man-made factors, the report says.
  • A report by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for 2020-21 identified western Maharashtra, southern Chhattisgarh, parts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and central Odisha as becoming ‘extremely prone’ to forest fires.
  • An FSI study based on the spatial analysis of forest fires points during the period 2004-21 has found that nearly 10.66% area under forests in India is ‘extremely’ to ‘very highly’ fire-prone.