Even as Odisha forest officials claimed that the raging fires in Similipal biosphere reserve, listed among the few biospheres of Unesco for its critical resources, was by and large under control, satellite pictures of NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System of forest fires showed that the fires were raging over Odisha and Similipal.
The Near Real-Time (NRT) active fire data of within 3 hours of satellite observation from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites and NASA's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) showed at least a hundred fire spots in Similipal biosphere reserve, spread over an area of 5569 sq km. The Similipal biosphere, having the largest zone of Sal trees in the country, is known for its distinctive biodiversity including 93 species of orchids, 300 species of medicinal plants and 52 species of endangered flora. It also has 42 species of mammals, 264 bird species, 39 reptile species and 12 amphibian species.
On Thursday, forest officials in Odisha claimed that the fires in the reserve were under control. "The fires were reported only in areas on the fringe of the reserve. These are not continuous fires that we see in places like the US or Australia, but sporadic fires that are caused due to anthropogenic factors. There has been no loss of wildlife due to the fire," said regional chief conservator of forests of Baripada circle, M Yogajayananda.
His claims were disputed by conservationists working in Similipal, who alleged that the forest department staff was yet to venture into several fire spots in Thakurmunda and Podadiha range. "The officials are claiming that no loss of wildlife has happened. There are several pangolins, forest fowls, peafowls and other wild animals that could have died. How could the department know before all the fires have been put out," asked Vanoomitra Acharya, a local conservationist.
The fire in Similipal biosphere reserve came at a time when Odisha topped the list of forest fire incidents with 8,688 fire spots since February 25 as per the Forest Survey of India's fire alerts system based on SNPP (Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership). Telangana came a distant second with 1769 fires in the same time. Odisha also saw 11,708 forest fires since November 1 last year, the highest among all the states.
According to the India State of Forest Report 2019, of the 30,000 incidents of forest fires that were reported in India in 2019, most of them were reported from Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and the southern states. "The dry deciduous forests, which receive low rainfall, face 5-6 dry months and have nutrient poor soil, such as those in tropical and subtropical latitude, are more vulnerable to fire compared to others," the FSI report said.
The report further said that of the total 712,249 square km of forest cover in the country, 152,421 square km (21.40%) was either highly or extremely fire prone. Most of these vulnerable forests were in Odisha, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Manipur and Madhya Pradesh. Forest Survey of India has been conducting investigations in different parts of the country since 1965, keeping records of forest fires in sample plots and developing a forest fire alert system.
The rise in forest fires over Odisha this year is being attributed to rise in daytime temperatures. In Similipal, the daytime temperatures over the last fortnight have hovered around 40 degrees Celsius, which experts say is the major reason for forest fires. Yet, the experts said fire management in India should be focussed on prevention and getting the tribal communities involved in forest management.
Raman Sukumar of Centre for Ecological Sciences in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore said the forest bureaucracy should focus on prevention of fires instead of detection and suppression. "The whole fire management process should be relooked and the prevention system should start by the end of winter. Forest departments should involve tribals and use their traditional knowledge to manage the forests more effectively," he said.