The report, “Fire in Tirumala forests again” (June 1) reminded me of an earlier report, “Verdant Bandipur devastated by fire” (March 15) , where more than 800 acres of forest in the tiger reserve were said to have been destroyed. The Tirumala forests are equally rich in terms of bio-diversity. When catastrophic fires ravage national parks, especially in the Western Ghats, they are dangerous, expensive and endanger the lives of people. More importantly, they drastically change ecological conditions for the worse.
Why do extreme fires happen in the first place? In his best-selling book Collapse, biologist Jared Diamond talks about a similar problem in Montana. The U.S. Forest Service in the first decade of the 1900s adopted a policy of fire suppression. Fire was previously a natural factor that regulated forest dynamics. Eighty years after protection, the “pristine” environment had artificially accumulated huge biomass. It easily turned into hell as large and violent fires ravaged the forests, creating much more damage than the frequent and less-intense fires.
I can say that the dry forests of Bandipur and Mudumalai are fire resistant and have been recently shaped by fire. The ecosystem is a heritage of this age and wildlife managers have to now maintain a favourable equilibrium between trees and grasses to sustainably manage herbivore populations.
After years of strict protection in the open forests of Bandipur, again, the forest has accumulated biomass. In this condition, every year during the dry season, the ecosystem crosses a very dangerous limit when it is ready to explode into flames. All it takes is for a careless cigarette thrown out of the window of a passing car to start an inferno. To avoid reaching this dangerous state, controlled fires are the solution. Controlled rotational burning could be carried out by park personnel every two or three years, preferably at the end of the rainy season to avoid high temperatures. This could have several advantages. Trees and bushes resist low intensity fires and it could control the spread of invasive species such as Lantana camara. It will also help animals like the elephant which need grasses. Grasses are fire-resistant but are replaced by invasive species when strict fire protection is imposed. On the whole, a low intensity fire can be a good management tool.
Twenty years ago, a group of us joined some ecologists who advocated more studies on fire. We published a paper in Current Science stating that fire could be used as a management tool to avoid catastrophic fires, to regulate weed expansion and to preserve the herbivore carrying capacity. But as management policy is to suppress fires, experiments on fires are almost never approved and nothing much has been done on the ground. In Bandipur for example, bamboos there fruit and die once every 60 odd years. A violent fire could trigger bamboo regeneration. Beyond this positive outcome, how many more destructive fires will be needed before the authorities start accepting that experiments on fire are needed to properly manage national parks with open forests?
Jean Philippe Puyravaud, Puducherry
Keywords: Tirumala forest fires