Managing the main threat to the forests of Himachal Pradesh

22 Mar, 2020

Forest Fire Management training for the front-line staff and local communities

Forest fire is one of the largest human-caused disturbances that can influence a forest ecosystem. In India, forest fires are the main cause for forest degradation and consequent alteration or loss of ecosystem services. High frequency of forest fire drastically alters the species diversity, structure of the forest and regeneration of plants within the forest. Consequently, the diversity of faunal species dependent on undisturbed forest, would decline, leading to loss in the overall biodiversity. Regular fire affects the water availability by decreasing soil moisture as well as humus content of the soil. As a result, the water holding capacity of soil is decreased and most of the water during rainfall is washed away, removing the top fertile soil of the forest, leading to further degradation.

For example, in Himachal Pradesh, forest fire plays a major role in the oak-pine forest dynamics. Pine trees regenerate in open areas under high levels of sunlight. They are adapted to extreme conditions like drought, frost and regular fires. They are fire-resistant and can survive relative high fire frequencies. Oak trees in the Western Himalayas, are in general, capable of growing under a tree canopy with low levels of light. However, they are fire sensitive. If fire occurs repetitively, oak have a very little chance to establish and form an oak forest. This signifies that young oak trees are killed by fire, while young pine trees have a relatively higher chance to survive fires. The extent to which pine forest can develop into an oak forest is still a matter of debate within the scientific community. However, according to our observations in the Himalayas, oak regenerates very well under pine forest in the absence of regular fires. This transforms the pine forest into a pure oak forest over time (approximate 50-100 years). In this oak forest, pine cannot establish again, as the amount of light reaching the ground is not enough. This means that fire is a major factor that needs to be managed if forest should be developed for more density and tree diversity. Dense and diverse forests are required for the supply of a number of benefits that people derive from them, especially water regulation which is the most important of these services in hilly areas.

Forest fires are both accidental and intentional and are often regulated by the social context of local communities of an area. Therefore, it is important to understand the social drivers behind setting forest fire to manage it, with the help of the local communities and the forest department.

The Himachal Pradesh Forest Ecosystem Services (HP-FES) Project convened a training in collaboration with the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department (HPFD) on forest fire management, for 30 front-line staff members. The training was intended to build their capacities in understanding fire behavior, avoiding a fire outbreak by knowing the social context in cooperation with all stakeholders, its impact on vegetation, and firefighting. The participants were also trained on field on how to read the forest fire in a landscape. Similar training was conducted with local communities of three project demonstration sites namely Cheola, Kharota and Shangarh. The training was conducted at respective sites and a total of 60 participants attended the training. The sites for the training were selected on the basis of forest structure where forest fire plays a dominant role in shaping it. The aim of the training was to enable communities to protect the areas demarcated in the forest management plan for water regulation and other services from forest fire which are at high risk of fire effectively.

The participants mapped forest fire zones and reasons for sources of fire within the respective sites. Following the activity, a fire management plan was developed for each site which included social and technical aspects. The social aspects included identification of the fire source and subsequent discussions with adjacent communities that might be causing forest fires. The technical aspects included creating fuel control lines to avoid fire. The fire management plan was agreed upon by the local community as well as by the local forest department responsible for the sites.

The content of these trainings will be further transformed into a pictorial forest fire management manual. The manual will include forest fire behavior, factors that affect fire, managing fire before and during the fire outbreak. The manual will be finally integrated in the syllabus of the Forest Training Institute, Himachal Pradesh.

Authors: Jyoti Kashyap and Joachim Schmerbeck


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