Forest fires | Exploding bamboo in Karnataka; a WhatsApp firefighting group in Kerala

There’s only so much that vigilant fire watchers and precautionary fire lines can do. More manpower is the need of the hour

Updated - May 17, 2024 06:45 pm IST

Published - May 17, 2024 04:12 pm IST

Forest fire in Karnataka

Forest fire in Karnataka | Photo Credit: M.A. Sriram

“As the saying goes, where there’s smoke there’s fire,” says Ajoy Thipaiah, 61, the proprietor at Kerehaklu Estate, Chikmagalur. Every fire season, they keep a lookout because the undulating landscape of the Western Ghats means they can look down at vast areas and locate fires quickly. “Depending on the wind direction, we can predict the path of the fire, and we immediately alert the forest officials and our neighbours.” Thipaiah and his staff also head out armed with large, leafy branches to try and beat out smaller fires in the vicinity, to help the officials where they can.

Over the years Kerehaklu, a family-run plantation started in the early 1950s, has lost large tracts of coffee cultivation to forest fires. “We have fire watchers during the day, and we keep water tankers ready. But often it’s not sufficient. You can’t man the areas 24 hours a day, and forest fires can advance quite quickly during the night.”

Field staff of the Karnataka forest department

Field staff of the Karnataka forest department | Photo Credit: M.A. Sriram

Fire fighting succulents
While there are no fire-proof plants, their moisture content can determine if a plant would burn. Some, such as succulents, can even act as fire retardants. Agave and euphorbia tend to melt rather than ignite, and can help create defensible spaces to help firefighters stop a wildfire. This is especially useful for farms and plantations that abut forests. “Recently, I read that vetiver grass is inherently fire resistant. So, it is something we are now trying to plant along the periphery,” says Thipaiah of Kerehaklu Estate. “Maybe the department can try planting them too, especially on the slopes, to create fire breaks.” 

Come summer, most indigenous trees shed their leaves and dried debris piles up on the forest floor. By March, the wild grass is bone dry, too, and highly combustible. But one of the worst offenders is bamboo. “Dry bamboo is like a firecracker. It explodes and flaming splinters spread the fire, even crossing the fire lines.” The forest department clears as much as possible, but the areas can be too big to ensure a thorough job.

But Thipaiah adds that over the years, the forest department’s efforts are getting better. “I’ve heard they use an app to track satellite fire alerts and the information is relayed to the ground level,” he says. Thipaiah, who is active on Twitter, also tweets the department whenever he spots a possible fire incident. “Surprisingly this year, despite having one of our worst summers, we haven’t had a forest fire in our area. It goes to show there has been a lot more forest patrolling by the department.”

Firefighters trying to douse a fire in Palakkad

Firefighters trying to douse a fire in Palakkad

Kerala’s WhatsApp firefighters
Kerala has a volunteer corps of social workers to address forest fires. Fire locations shared via their WhatsApp group quickly muster up these 100-odd volunteers (from different parts of the State, such as Palakkad, Malappuram, and Thrissur), who have undergone training in forest fire fighting, trauma care and disaster management. An experiment started by Mannarkkad Range Forest Officer N. Subair two years ago, it is fast finding success. The volunteers are also involved in creating awareness among the people living in the fringes of the forest. “Thanks to the volunteer corps, we have been able to bring down fire incidence considerably this year, especially in Attappady, one of the most vulnerable forest areas in Kerala,” says Subair. According to Global Forest Watch, an open-source web application monitoring forests across the world in near real-time, there were 51 major satellite fire alerts in Kerala since January. But none got out of control despite the State having witnessed one of its worst summers in recent memory.
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