Though wildfires have shaped terrestrial ecosystems of the Palani Hills for centuries, they have increased in intensity and frequency in recent years, due to human intervention. (Photo: Asha Joshi/ Shutterstock)

Fire on the Mountain

‘Now, when I see a fire, I run towards it instead of away,’ says Vinay Parade, a farmer who lost nearly half his land to a wildfire in March this year. 40-year-old Parade was sleeping in a tent on his farm when he awoke to the noise of crackling flames. It was 3am on a Sunday. Looking out, he saw a fire burning on a farm farther away, above the village of Adukkam in Nellivarai. He quickly phoned his neighbours to alert them. Then he called the local forest guard, who let his senior official know.

Three people from the Forest Department were the first to arrive, at around 6am. By then, Parade and the local farmers nearby had quickly managed to create a fireline using rakes and brooms made with fresh leaves. (He defines a fireline as a gap of 20–30 feet of land cleared of foliage, leaves and weeds so that the fire runs out of fuel to burn when it crosses it.) Soon, more members of the Forest Department joined, along with the ranger, to tackle the fire, which lasted over two days. 

Fighting wildfires is a part of life for people living across the Palani Hills. ‘I must have fought four wildfires in five years,’ says Parade, who was previously a commercial photographer and had zero experience in farming before moving to the mountains in 2016. He lived in Karuna Farms for two years, where he first encountered a wildfire on his friend’s farm and helped put it out. This time, his prized avocado trees were destroyed by the flames on his own land.

Although fighting wildfires is now familiar to Parade, he could not stop that raging fire from engulfing a large part of his farm later that afternoon. Parade is one of several farmers affected by numerous wildfires that start in different areas annually.

After the blaze, images of destruction after a fire this March on Kodai resident Vinay Parade’s farm (Photos: Vinay Parade)

‘I have noticed that if a person starts a fire on his own land to clear it and if it accidentally spreads to the neighbour’s land, the neighbour does not file a complaint with the police because they want local support,’ says Narayanan Swaminathan, venture capitalist, founder and CEO, SHS Advisory Group, who owns a five-acre farm in Vilpatti. A couple of trees at the edge of his farm faced the rage of a wildfire in March 2018, just a day or two before the forest fire in Kurangani that snuffed out the lives of more than 20 trekkers.

‘This time, we went to the panchayat office and lodged a complaint against this fire. Hopefully they will take some action because there was a lot of damage,’ says Parade. ‘This is part of life in the mountains. There is no point in grieving. It is more important to rebuild and help the farm revive. Henceforth, I will start preparing a fireline from January, instead of waiting for a wildfire to start. I will cut everything, the foliage and the weeds, 20–30 feet off and put it downhill and light it up. If and when a wildfire comes, it will not have fuel to spread farther.’

Wildifire on Kodai resident Vinay Parade’s Prakasapuram farm, this March (Video: Vinay Parade)

Man vs wild

These wildfires are most common in the months of February and March, the driest months of the year. Unfortunately, most of the fires are caused by humans, either intentionally or otherwise. Both locals and tourists have easy access to the forests, where they often go to enjoy a drink or two,leaving glass bottles behind. The alcohol that remains sometimes catches fire during the day, when the weather turns hot, according to PK Dileep, District Forest Officer (DFO). He says that more than 30 fires have been reported this year thus far.

The Forest Department has installed awareness boards for tourists. ‘It is challenging to control the behaviour of tourists. We have already conducted awareness programmes, and we will continue to pursue this every year,’ says Dileep. ‘At the check post at the foothills of Palani Road and Batlagundu Road, our staff members interact with the people who come here. We distribute pamphlets in both Tamil and English, listing the dos and don’ts while in the sanctuary area.’

YurrVisitors sometimes leave half-empty glass bottles of alcohol behind when they visit Kodai’s forests; this can accelerate a forest fire on hot, sunny days (Photo: Yurii Romanchuk/ Shutterstock)

To reduce the number of fires, the department is constantly looking for solutions. ‘With just the support of forest-dependent communities, we could reduce the number of fires,’ Dileep stresses. ‘We have conducted meetings with the community regularly, engaging with them to know their needs. These friendly talks will definitely help, and so will fire-orientation training.’

Farmers are known to set fire to clear their land, but these fires can get out of hand and spread to nearby farms and forests, as in the case of Saleth Mary Jancy. The 28-year-old and her four sisters work on their family’s five-acre farm in Kadalkodai, past Pallangi.She says she has lost count of the number of wildfires that she has seen since childhood. She recounts an incident that happened around 2014. Her husband and her younger sister’s husband wanted to create a boundary and so, set fire to the trees to clear that portion of land. At the time of setting the fire, there were no winds. But soon after, strong winds carried the flames to the neighbour’s farm, where more than 20 plum trees were gutted. Jancy’s family said they ended up paying Rs 50,000 as compensation to the neighbour; since they were relatives, the amount was subsidised. ‘In 2015, a eucalyptus tree on our farm caught fire and burnt for a week,’ says Jancy, who learnt the basics of putting out wildfires from her father and paternal grandmother.

Dry grasslands catch fire easily, especially lemongrass. Dr Rajamanikam Ramamoorthy, Project Coordinator, Centre for Environment and Humanity (CEH), Kodaikanal International School, interacts with children and their parents from the local tribal community regularly to understand their lifestyle and how they interact with the forest. He has once witnessed a wildfire swallowing up grasslands quickly. ‘The flora and fauna are highly threatened,’ observes Dr Ramamoorthy, who lists a number of reasons for the occurrence of wildfires, all involving human interference. It is rare for a wildfire to start naturally in the Palani Hills due to the rich Shola ecosystem it contains, he says.

Dry areas, such as this expanse of lemongrass, are likely to catch fire easily (Photo: Famartin/ Wikicommons)

Given the vastness of the area, putting out these wildfires is a daunting task for both farmers and the Forest Department. The team is small, with only one vehicle, and the lack of roads makes access to the forest difficult. This is why the local community gets together whenever there is a wildfire. Holistic educator Karuna Jenkins, who grew up in the valley of Pethuparai in Ganeshnagar, lives between there and Bangalore. She recounts when the vegetation was particularly dry and wildfires were a regular occurrence in 2019.‘ My father and I attended a meeting in town with the local community. We were talking about the various causes and solutions, and we gathered that the Forest Department is limited in their capacity to manage the fires. By the time they reach the fire, it is often too late.’

While one of the main reasons for farmers to start fires is to clear the land of weeds, another is to discourage wild animals from hiding or wandering in to graze on the crops.‘ They see wild animals as a threat,’ says Jenkins, who has fought several wildfires near her house.

‘It is heartbreaking to see the young Shola trees get burnt every year. There are fewer and fewer of them. And I have heard from local people that while older animals escape, the young usually cannot, especially birds. The nests get burnt and the babies die,’ she laments.

A source, on condition of anonymity, revealed that in the village of Puliyur there are about 13 households who earn their livelihood by making brooms from a particular plant that is non-forest produce. Tender leaves of the grass are needed to make these brooms, so the old grass is regularly burnt to make way for new shoots. The local forest guards are bribed not to take notice of it.

Adrenaline rush

While the fires continue to rage every other year, residents across the valley gear up to tackle them head-on. ‘It is a rush of adrenaline. Your whole body is operating at a different level—you are in mortal danger, there is so much smoke that you cannot see where the fire really is, you are coughing all the time, your eyes are burning,’ Parade says. ‘Make sure not to wear synthetic clothes, like jackets, as they will easily melt onto your skin.’

Jenkins concurs, “It is quite an adrenaline rush. In a way, it feels good to protect the land. But it is also really dangerous and hot, so it is difficult to get close to the flames. Even after the fire has gone through, there are hot embers. I have burnt myself in the past. My clothes and shoes have got burnt. There have been a few scary situations where I was almost surrounded by fire. I was alone—it was pretty terrifying. Also, the wind can spread the fire, making it jump. If it reaches a lemongrass bush, it can get huge.’

The phenology of forest fires

Nikil Shankar Narayanan, a tenth grader at Kodaikanal International School, undertook a study on the impact of forest fires in the Palani Hills (published in Mongabay-India) through a series of field interviews with 4 individuals across 6 villages. He writes, ‘Through one-on-one interactions with Kodaikanal’s residents, I soon understood that wildfire is a very complicated issue with no single cause or solution. Every sub-region around Kodaikanal has diverse relationships with fire, each location having a different cause and effect to the crisis.’

Wildfire expert HS Pabla says, ‘The goal for fire management should be to mimic the historical fire regimes of an area as far as possible, rather than total and permanent exclusion of fires… We need a middle path.’(Photo: HS Pabla)

TKC contacted Dr HS Pabla, a wildlife expert and author of several books, including Besides Loving the Beasts (which contains the chapter ‘Living with Forest Fires’).He retired as Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh in 2012, after serving 35 years in the Indian Forest Service. ‘Fire is by far the most important factor that shapes terrestrial ecosystems. As a result of this long association, most species of plants and animals have adapted to the historical fire regimes in their range of occurrence. In fact, several of them are fire-dependent and will be adversely affected if we tinker with fire seasons. Therefore, fire management in any ecosystem must be carefully planned keeping the requirements of local biota in mind,’ he says.

Forest fires are beneficial to ecosystems, he stresses. As decaying plants begin to build up on the ground, they may prevent organisms within the soil from accessing nutrients, National Geographic’s resource ‘The Ecological Benefits of Fire’ tells us, explaining that this coating of dead organic matter can also choke the outgrowth of smaller plants. Fires remove that layer of decay and allow the healthy parts of the ecosystem to thrive. Also, the longer the interval between two consecutive fires, the more devastating they are as a result of higher fuel build up, Pabla explains. ‘The goal for fire management should be to mimic the historical fire regimes of an area as far as possible, rather than total and permanent exclusion of fires. However, that is easier said than done; on one side, determining historical fire regimes is difficult, if not impossible, while on the other, it is not humanly possible to control the incidence and behaviour of wildfires. We need to find a middle path,’ says Pabla.

The agae plant, with its succulent leaves, helps create a natural barrier, so as to block a rapidly-spreading fire (Photo: Creative Commons)

What to do in case of fire in Kodaikanal

The Forest Check Post at Perumalmalai, half an hour down the ghats from Kodaikanal town and the site of the huge fire this March, has a 24×7 helpline in case of a forest fire: 9443886452.It was started in January 2022, based on a suggestion by a ranger (Sivakumar) in Kodaikanal with the permission of the DFO. ‘Earlier, when any wildfire started, the public would call the personal number of the local ranger, who was not always available,’ explains K Karthik, a forester at Perumalmalai Forest Check Post. Based in the area for two years, he fought eight fires just last year. This year, the number has almost doubled—he has already confronted 14 fires.

To create awareness of the helpline, they distributed notices among residents and tourists, and some posters were placed in public spots. As of the first week of April, eight calls have been received, two from tourists and six from locals, reporting forest fires.

According to the forester, most fires resulted from the reflection of sunlight on glass bottles thrown inside the forest. Some were from burnt cigarettes thrown from running vehicles into the forest area near the road. Even if the fire is weak, strong winds help fan the flames to create a blaze.

‘Encroachments inside the reserve forest for the past several years are a major issue. The fires that they set spread easily through the forest,’ says Karthik. Only 10 percent of farmers who have valid pattas of land ownership cause fires by accident, he says, stressing the lack of accountability of encroachers.

Though wildfires have several ecosystem functions, it is important not to allow them to get out of control and lead to loss of lives and property.

Fire management around the world—HS Pabla

Globally, fires are a mix of natural (lightning-induced) and man-caused. But in India, most fires fall in the latter category. Many countries, like South Africa and the US, where human density is relatively low, allow natural fires to burn uninterrupted, unless they become dangerous to human life and property, while all anthropogenic fires are actively prevented and put out. Some countries (and states like Florida in the US) have prescribed fire laws, where all forests are deliberately burnt at prescribed intervals to prevent dangerous fires that would destroy human settlements and infrastructure. They put out all unintended fires, natural or otherwise, and burn their forests as per approved plans. ‘Most countries abandoned the policies of total fire exclusion nearly 100 years ago, but India still follows it. Now, only some mesic grasslands, as in Corbett and Kaziranga National Parks, are burnt in winter. Some countries are even trying to reverse the damage done by decades of unnecessary fire prevention by reintroducing fire into those forests (eg Yosemite National Park in the US),’ says Pabla.

Fire management in Indian forests generally consists of four elements: fire lines (fire breaks), fire watchers, public engagement and fire fighting. The goal is complete fire exclusion. ‘I think this must change. Every forest area should have a pragmatic fire management plan that should accept the occurrence of fire at an agreed frequency (approximately) as a necessary requirement. This frequency should be locally determined and based on best available science, as far as possible. Broadly, this can be a five- to six-year fire cycle. The Forest Department should keep meticulous records of fire incidents and should have a plan to ignite fires in areas that have not burnt as per the plan. Any unplanned and unwanted fires should be actively put out,’ says Pabla.

He suggests the decision of whether to prevent fire or burn an area should depend on the objective of the management of the area and its ecological characteristics. For example, heavily grazed forests, particularly grasslands, need not be burnt, but under-grazed and moribund grasslands need to be burnt periodically depending on the fuel (biomass) build up. The frequency, severity, seasonality and intensity of fire (collectively called the fire regime of the area) to be used also depends on whether the objective is to encourage or discourage the spread of a species or forest type (tree species encroaching into grassland or eliminating unpalatable species in a grassland, etc).

If the objective is just to prevent all fires, it can be done only by eliminating/reducing the fuel, the ignition source or both. Fuel in the forests can be reduced either by physically removing it (eg allowing people to cut and carry out biomass) or by allowing cattle to graze or cool season burning. Maintenance of an effective network of firebreaks is critical to control the spread of fires. As most fires are ignited by people, deliberately or negligently, controlling the behaviour and movements of people is necessary to minimise the chances of ignition. Physical patrolling of vulnerable areas in the fire season is important to detect and fight fires. Satellite-based early warning systems operated by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) would also be helpful in minimising fire damage.

Incidentally, although forest fires are predicted to increase in the future as a result of global warming and climate change, satellite-based studies in India (and South Asia) indicate a gradual decline in the incidents of fire and the area burnt, at least since the beginning of this century.

Reena Raghavamoorthy

Reena Raghavamoorthy completed her post-graduate degree in media and communication. She has worked for B2B publications in Dubai, and currently works for The Potter's Shed in Kodaikanal. She lives in Attuvampatti.

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