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Modern forest fire control: The Indian experience

R. Saigal

Reshma Saigal, a consultant in development economics, conducted an on-site economic analysis of the Modern Fire Control Project in 1988. An Indian national, she is currently based in Rome.

Since independence in 1947, India has suffered a rapid depletion of forest resources. Some 75 million ha are officially classified as forest land, but according to the 1987 Forest Survey of India (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1987), the actual forest cover is 64.2 million ha. This is equivalent to only 19.5 percent of the total land area, whereas the National Forest Policy (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1988) sets a goal of at least one-third (approximately 110 million ha) of total land area under forest cover for ecological stability. Moreover, the existing forest resources are subject to severe biotic pressure, owing to the fact that with less than 2 percent of the forest area in the world, the country supports over 15 percent of the world's population and nearly 14 percent of its cattle.

Forest fires are a significant and increasing contributory factor in this degradation process, although the extent of total damage is widely disputed. According to a study by Srivastava (1989), during the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1980-85) 17852 fires were reported, affecting an area of 5.7 million ha, or an annual average of some 1.14 million ha. However, my extrapolations of fire data in two representative areas (Chandrapur and Haldwani) indicate that the total area burnt annually may range between 2.66 and 13.95 million ha (Saigal, 1989). Even this range may be regarded as conservative; data collected by the Forest Survey of India indicate that the forest area that is affected by annual fires may be as much as 37 million ha (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1987).

HILLSIDE FOREST FIRES are often set by pastoralists to promote new growth of grass for fodder

Causal factors

Most of the forest fires in India are deliberately set by small-scale farmers or landless rural people. In the northeastern parts of India, the practice of slash-and-burn shifting cultivation is the leading cause of forest destruction. The most heavily affected areas are Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Nationally, an estimated 4.35 million ha are affected by fire as part of shifting cultivation. This is especially significant in that with the growth of population and consequent decrease in the land/person ratio, not only are more areas subjected to shifting cultivation, but also the fallow period for regeneration has been reduced from the initial 30 years to two years.

Another of the most important causes of forest fires is related to the need for fodder for grazing animals. Although some 12.5 million ha of land is officially classified as permanent pasture or grazing land, most of this area is virtually devoid of grass. Therefore, most of the grazing requirement is met from forest area by setting fires to produce new flushes of grass in the dry season.

In central India, the production of tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon) is another major cause of forest fire. Tendu leaves are rolled and filled with tobacco to make a cigarette known as beedi. Their collection and sale is an important secondary source of income. Collectors of tendu leaves set fires in the summer months to promote a better flush of leaves. The problem is compounded by the fact that tendu areas are leased for the collection of leaves on an annual basis; the purchasers are therefore reluctant to make long-term investments in crop improvement. The most economical and quick alternative is to set tendu areas on fire; these fires all too often then extend to other forest areas owing to negligence and carelessness.

Another non-wood forest product that contributes to forest fire is the mahua flower (Madhuca indica), collected by local people in north-central India to produce a popular beverage, or boiled with sal seeds (Shorea robusta) as a seasonal grain substitute. Mahua pickers burn the dry leaves under the trees to get a clean patch of floor to facilitate flower collection. While the intention is only to clear a small patch beneath a single tree, these fires often spread out of control. Since the collection of mahua flowers is done during the summer months, the hot dry weather aggravates the situation.

Effects of fire

Uncontrolled fires affect forest resources in a variety of ways. Regeneration is killed or dies back, thereby delaying the establishment of a new crop and extending the rotation. When newly planted teak plantations are bums, it is standard practice in Maharashtra to cut the young trees down to ground level; this stimulates a new vigorous shoot from the base, but at least one year's growth is lost. Fires are reported to damage seriously the regeneration of important tree species in sal forest (Maithani, Bhauguna and Lal, 1986). Chir pine regeneration is similarly killed or set back. Young eucalyptus plantations frequently require replanting and coppice regeneration dies back (or must be cut back) after fire.

Mortality may result from intense fires in older crops, although the trees develop thick bark that protects them. Eucalyptus appears to suffer more than the indigenous species and the effects of fires are apparent in reduced stocking per hectare and lower yields at maturity. In the Haldwani area, the actual yields obtained from pulpwood plantations, compared with theoretical yields derived from yield tables, indicate an average stocking of about 60 percent. However, it is not possible to say how much of this reduction is due to fire and how much is attributable to other causes (Gane, 1987).

Loss of increment results from the defoliation that accompanies fires and the consequent check to tree growth. Repeated burning leads to site deterioration, changes in soil nutrient status and accelerated erosion due to the destruction of the ground flora; these also reduce the rate of growth. No research appears to have been done in India on the growth losses attributable to wildfires. The only available evidence is a paper by Rawat (1949) on the results of controlled burning in the sal plantations of Bengal, which shows that fires significantly reduced the diameter growth of trees. Australian studies indicate that the volume increment of various species of eucalyptus is reduced after fires and that the effect persists for several years. The cumulative loss of annual increment depends on the severity of the fire, but generally lies in the range of one to three years' growth.

Timber quality is affected by scorching from the base of the tree, which damages the cambium, leading to defective butt logs. Fungal infection may occur through the damaged tissues and cause rot. The records of timber sold through the Ballarshah depot of the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra reveal that the average price received in 1984/85 and 1985/86 for fire-damaged logs was 9.8 percent lower than the average price of all logs sold. In the Nainital chir pine forests in Uttar Pradesh, resin tapping affects the yield of merchantable timber by damaging the lower part of the tree; the scars enable fires to bum into the heartwood and, in some cases, kill the tree.

These tangible losses may produce a knock-on effect in the form of a reduction in output and employment in industries dependent on wood as raw material. For example Chatterjee (1978) estimated that for sawnwood, each rupee's worth of output created Rs2.169 of employment and Rs11.994 of non-labour value added. Despite the fact that these multipliers were based on 1965 prices, they suffice to evidence the effect of fires on the wider economy.

No research appears to have been done so far on the potentially far graver intangible effects of forest fires in India. Not only do uncontrolled fires bum down the vegetation, but also the organic matter is adversely lowered, increasing the frequency of flooding and causing soil erosion. In addition, wildlife patterns and habitat may be disrupted. The situation is exacerbated by a lack of fire protection planning knowledge and incentive.

Modern forest fire control project

The scale of the damage and the waste of natural resources due to uncontrolled fires has thus brought the issue of forest fires to the forefront of forest policy. An important start was made in 1984 when the FAO/UNDP-assisted project in modem forest fire control was launched by the Government of India. The underlying thesis of the project is that fire damages and losses can be reduced considerably by using the basic components of prevention, detection, suppression and communication (see Box).

The project is active in two-areas which together are considered representative of the overall Indian situation - Chandrapur and Haldwani. Chandrapur (Maharashtra State) covers an area of 162600 ha with an undulating terrain consisting of natural teak forests and extensive teak plantations. It also includes the Tadoba National Park and is well served by communication and road links. The Haldwani project area (372700 ha) in Uttar Pradesh State is more diverse and includes mountains with forests of chir pine and sal natural forests. The flat Terai region has been converted largely to eucalyptus plantations for commercial pulp production.

Project activities have been concentrated in four key areas as part of an integrated fire management strategy:


Physical prevention measures have concentrated on the construction and maintenance of fuel breaks in the mountainous terrain, and the use of mechanized equipment (tractors with plough) to construct fire breaks in the plains to protect eucalyptus plantations. These measures have proved effective from the standpoint of reducing fire losses and size of fire; they also provide safe access and areas for fire crews to make effective initial attacks on approaching fire fronts. Other preventive measures include prescribed burning of roadside fuel loadings, particularly elephant grass, especially in highly fire-prone locations.

Educational measures to increase awareness of the danger and damage due to forest fire have also been demonstrated by the project. Posters bearing a fire prevention message or fire risk meters have been installed through the divisions in the project areas, to increase public awareness of seasonal fire severity. These measures have been buttressed by a fire awareness week held annually. A survey of villagers' basic attitudes toward forest fires was conducted as a starting-point for developing closer cooperation with rural communities in fire prevention, as well as in detection and suppression. The results of the survey were encouraging in that they revealed that more than half the villagers questioned were aware of the harmful effects of forest fires.


A key element of a successful fire protection programme lies in the early detection of forest fires. In the Haldwani project area, a network of 32 fire detection towers have been strategically positioned and are staffed during the fire seasons with trained personnel equipped with binoculars and a radio for rapid reporting of observed smoke or fire. Statistics gathered in the two project areas during the fire season of 1987/88 indicate that although the frequency of fires was high throughout this period, the fires were controlled at a smaller size. Seasonal employment of villagers during the fire season ensures that an adequate level of labour operating under the aegis of trained ground personnel is readily available.

India's Modern Forest Fire Control Project

The overall development objective of the project is to ensure an adequate quantity and quality of forest products from both natural and human-made forest, as well as the protection of soils and environment on lands where the protective and productive role of forests and forest vegetation is accorded national land-use priority.

The specific objectives are:

· to devise, test and demonstrate principles and techniques of prevention, detection and suppression of forest fires in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra;

· to determine the technical, socioeconomic and financial feasibility of the application of modern forest fire-fighting techniques in India to enable the government to take appropriate investment decisions in this respect;

· to institute an effective, useful and appropriate system of fire statistic reporting, recording and dissemination;

· to establish through appropriate fire behaviour trials a fire danger rating system applicable to the major fuel types encountered, suitable for use as a basis for extrapolation nationally;

· to formulate an effective programme to strengthen the fire prevention, detection and suppression capabilities of the forest and rural fire protection authorities in the two States;

· to organize and promote a cooperative fire prevention programme based on the active participation of rural communities;

· to establish a cooperative programme of fire management with other departments and authorities, including agreements for reciprocal and mutual aid benefits, and to facilitate the integration of forest fire protection into overall development plans.



The traditional method of combating forest fires - using fire traces and beating with branches - is clearly inadequate in dealing with present-day conditions. The project has effectively demonstrated the successful use of labour-intensive, manually operated hand-tools in reducing fire damage. In this sense, the modernization of techniques and methods is a matter not of computerized high technology, or imported equipment, but rather of a successful coordination of easily available resources and an understanding of values at risk.

The average size of fire in Chandrapur came down from 190 to 18 ha during the 1988/89 fire season. This was made possible because the fires were contained by a fast initial attack, aided by equipment provided under the project.

CLEARING A FIREBREAK to protect a teak plantation near Chandrapur

A considerable achievement of the project has been the initiation of local production of many items of fire-fighting equipment, including basic tools such as the Pulaski-McLeod rake, shovels, fire finders and protective clothing. The local production represents a significant saving of foreign exchange for India. For example, the fire finders had previously been imported at the cost of about Rs40000 (US$2350) each. Their manufacture in India costs only Rs3500-4000 (US$206-235). Although initial time estimates for tool production were inadequate, these tools are now being produced in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of the two states involved in the project, and increased production for national use is possible. Moreover, these items meet accepted international standards and production for export is possible.

INSPECTION OF A TRAINED FIRE CREW with protective clothing and locally produced tools

Mobile water tanks, manufactured in India for mounting on the back of lorries, have proved to be a very effective tool where there is good road access and water supply is adequate. Water scarcity is being eliminated by digging wells, and a water-holding area is being constructed in the Himalayas to supply water for mobile tankers in the project areas.

The catchment basin in the Haldwani area, designed so that a helicopter could scoop up water with minimum delay, was completed and ready for the 1988 fire season.

Local manufacture of tools has been combined with extensive training of forestry personnel, both through field demonstration and by training in the United States.

The project has also acquired and is testing an aerial system comprising a helicopter with a bucket, a fixed-wing aircraft, a newly created helipoint and trained staff to manage and pilot the aircraft. The system was in operation for the first time during the 1988 forest fire season.

Various demonstrations utilizing both aircraft have provided the project personnel with a working knowledge of aircraft capabilities, limitations and options available. A major issue for the project is to determine the cost/benefit ratio of aerial forest fire-fighting techniques in a developing country like India where the consideration of economies of scale is very important.

READY TO ROLL a mobile tanker

It appears that the costs of helicopter fire-fighting cannot be justified in areas such as the Chandrapur forest which have good road access. The system would, however, be useful in the mountainous terrain of Haldwani. The fixed-wing aircraft has been demonstrated to be useful in multiple roles in detection and transport of equipment for overhead fire-fighting, directing ground reconnaissance and law enforcement; however, absolute cost is a constraint.


The project has, moreover, demonstrated the financial viability of extending the modern fire control methods into other areas, by formulating a sequential series of steps, representing different levels of investment which can be implemented one step at a time. Step consists of providing basic fire detection and communication equipment and supplying the crew with proper hand-tools. Step 2 involves improved detection equipment and communication facilities, jeeps and water-handling equipment. Steps 3 to 5 progressively increase the investment in equipment and crew capability to control fire. By step 5 every state forest plan would incorporate fire management.

Planning tools

A standard fire-fighting methodology has been developed for a fire danger rating system suitable for the main fuel types. The system, which has now been approved by the Government of India for use on a national scale, provides data for routine daily operations and has also become a useful planning tool for scheduling prescribed burning, as well as serving as a data base for planning fire-fighting strategy during the fire season.

Further enhancement of the system could include an improvement in data retrieval, which at present is effected through the laborious, time-consuming process of manually researching data records.

A key element in planning a well designed, wide-based protection programme related to specific conditions is fire-reporting. A report form has been specially designed for this purpose under the project and is now operational in the project areas.

Properly applied and analysed, this report will strengthen the data available on forest fires-direct causes and physical conditions (wind speed, fuel type, etc.), duration or extent, detection sources, costs and types of suppression method and damage sustained, and so on. The review of cost data would be especially significant in that no standardization has been attempted so far in evaluating the damage caused by forest fires.

The emphasis laid on fire-reporting after the introduction of the project is generating more reliable data on the incidence of fires and area burnt. However, in the reports that were investigated, economic damage or suppression casts were frequently miscalculated, with considerable underreporting. A possible reason is that the reporting form may be too exhaustive or may overestimate the forest guard's ability to complete it accurately. An improvement would be to carry out this recording procedure in two stages: an initial fire report, providing the basic data on each individual fire incident, and a detailed fire report, including standardized calculations to assess and quantify tangible damages, to be completed later by a forest officer. Moreover, representative one-hectare models for the main forest composition could be prepared for the calculation of values.

An important planning tool has thus been the development of standardization for evaluating the damage caused by forest fires. The productivity changes due to the reduction of annual area burnt were estimated by using a computer modelling system for the Chandrapur project area. The model was used to generate projection of the future annual yields for the "with fire" situation and the change to those yields caused by the rotation length reductions of ten years for teak plantations and 20 years for the natural forest.

Evaluation of performance and future development

Over the past five years the project has demonstrated the effectiveness of modern fire control methods under Indian conditions. The forest fire control personnel have shown that the methods used will reduce the area burnt to a tolerable level of resource management. The effectiveness of the project is seen in that even though the number of fire incidents (reported) remained constant, the area burnt was reduced in Chandrapur from 15 percent in the base year of 1985 to 1.86 percent in 1989, and from 13 percent to 1.3 percent in Haldwani. An economic assessment carried out by FAO (Saigal, 1989) indicates that this reduction of burnt area, through its effect on rotation length and crop productivity alone, has increased the gross domestic product generated by the forestry sector by an estimated average of Rs9087 (US$535) per hectare in the Chandrapur teak forest and Rs1295 ($76) per hectare in the Haldwani sal forest. In addition the project has shown the viability of labour-intensive, indigenous hand-tools and the utilization of fire lines and control burning.

The demonstrated success of the techniques developed under the project has led to an extension of this project into the second phase to coincide with India's Eighth Five-Year Plan. In phase two, the project is being extended to ten states covering some 40000 km² of valuable productive forest equivalent to 75 percent of India's commercial forest.

However, economic assessment has highlighted certain areas that still need to be further strengthened. There is an urgent need to consolidate the data base and increase its reliability. Work studies need to be initiated to set the course for future fire planning. This should lead to the development of fire plans based on an assessment of when and where fires occur and the characteristics of the area; these factors would be necessary for an efficient extension of the modern fire-fighting methods into other parts of India. More over, the project has not yet had the time to generate data for making cost-effective comparisons between alternative combinations of personnel and equipment. However, for the present, investment should continue to focus on basic equipment and organization. In addition, a research programme to investigate the effect of fire on crop productivity on an all-India basis should be implemented as soon as possible by the Forest Research Institute of India.


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