The Hindu Explains: From Tamil Nadu forest fires to the farmers’ Long March

Why are forests of Tamil Nadu burning?

Forest fire at Kurangani hill in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district on March 12, 2018.

Forest fire at Kurangani hill in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district on March 12, 2018.   | Photo Credit: G. Karthikeyan


What caused the fire?

While forest fires are as old as the forests themselves, there is a fair degree of human involvement in causing a forest to rage on through day and night. It is not yet clear what exactly caused the forest fire at Kurangani on the Western Ghats at Theni in Tamil Nadu. Forest fires may be caused by different factors like natural causes, including lightning, but 99% of the fires in the forests are man-made.

It could have been any of the following: Attempts to encroach upon forest lands, renewal of pastures or regain agricultural land at the expense of forests, fire caused by poachers and timber smugglers to destroy evidence of illegal activities or merely fire by miscreants or burning of waste in illegal dumps. It could have been the act of the locals, those living on the edges of the forest, who set fire in order that there may be growth of fresh grass for their cattle, or to shift cultivation patterns on the hills, and also, as a means to hoodwink forest officials. It could have also easily been any of these: A smouldering fire, not stamped out properly, leftover by travellers, campers and picnickers, and a spark that has escaped from a deliberate one on agricultural lands or from controlled burning elsewhere.

Why was it an emergency?

But irrespective of the cause, every fire is an emergency, even a minor one. While fires rage in forests every summer and are controlled from spreading too far by forest officials running a fire line and shearing the land of any vegetation for a significant area, the Kurangani fire turned into a disaster as 36 trekkers were stuck on the mountains.

A 24-member group of trekkers, organised by Chennai Trekking Club, and a 12-member team from Erode and Tirupur districts, were caught unawares by the fire on their way back from Kozhukkumalai to Kurangani. With their regular trekking route cut off by the fire, many panicked and lost their direction. The long grass, dried by the heat of an early summer, enabled the fire to spread quickly, experts later explained. While a number of trekkers were injured in falls, as many as 16 persons lost their lives.

Many others are still in hospital, being treated for burn injuries, having been rescued by a bunch of daring people, including Central and State government personnel, and locals.

Were rules flouted?

With the State government appointing an IAS officer to go into the question of the forest fire, the relatives of the victims are hopeful of some clarity in the explaination of the circumstances that led to the tragedy.

A number of questions have emerged since the fire, and for some of them, answers are, as yet, elusive: Did the trekkers get permission for the climb up the mountain? If they did, how was it sanctioned? Were forest authorities aware of the forest fire? Were there alerts from other agencies and did they reach officials on time? Were rescue operations delayed? These and many more certainly bother the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives at Kurangani.

What needs to be done?

Better monitoring of reserve forest areas and keeping a close watch on fire-prone spots have been recommended, but the feasibility of doing so with the current staff strength, given the difficult terrain, has also been raised.

The moot point is that while calamities may occur, on the part of the State, the minimisation of loss of life has to be prioritised. Forests fires have the tendency to change wildlife habitats. As the forests are not static, they evolve and respond to disturbances, and fire changes the proportion, arrangement and characteristic of habitats across the landscape.

In the immediate aftermath of fire, there can be a temporary loss of food and shelter, causing displacement of territorial birds and mammals, upsetting the ecological balance. Eventually, with the first showers, the forests will regenerate. But for families of 16 persons, their lives have changed forever.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 10:15:43 PM |

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