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Odisha forests burning bright

Forests in Odisha are burning in the scorching summer heat, literally. Around 2,700 cases of jungle fires were reported in the state in the past two months.

Satellite generated data available with the Forest Survey of India (FSI) said Kandhamal district in the southern part of the state reported the highest 757 incidents of forest blaze between March 1 and April 28.

Koraput district reported 500 forest fires while Ganjam reported 286 in the past two months. Other districts with over 100 instances of forest in flames include Sambalpur (171), Dhenkanal (137) and Sundargarh (108).

In total, there have been 2,934 forest fire incidents reported in the state this year. While a majority of 2,400 incidents were reported in March, there were 296 fires in April. The latest three incidents of fire were reported in three different places in Puri district on April 26, the FSI data said.

There were just 780 incidents of forest fire reported in 2011, while 2,523 fires were reported in 2010 and 2,080 in 2009.

Authorities attribute the drastic increase in number of forest fires to better tracking. “The mechanism to track and report fire incidents have improved due to satellite imagery. That is why the number seems to increase sharply. Earlier, many incidents were going unnoticed,” said principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) (wildlife) J D Sharma.

Sharma said another reason behind marginal rise in the number may be exceptionally dry weather during December and January. “There was no winter rain this time. Such rains help control dryness in forest. That may be one reason behind some more fires this time,” he said.

The PCCF (wildlife) said the forest department had created several fire lines (patches clean of foliage so that accidental fires don’t cross those lines) and had undertaken controlled fires to destroy combustible leaves to avert mishaps.

Environmentalists said all incidents of forest fires are due to human error, sometimes deliberate. Gopal Panda, a professor of geography at Utkal University, said March and April are the months when such incidents go up every year because thick carpets of leaves shed by tress are found lying in forest during this time. “People dependent on firewood, torch the forests so that they may gain an easy entry inside the thick foliage,” he said. Notably, 65% families in the state depend on firewood for kitchen fuel, as per Census 2011 household data.

Panda said those collecting mahua flowers tend to burn the fallen leaves to have a clean ground to collect the flowers on. Such fires sometimes spread uncontrollably. During the dryness of spring and summer, people casually dropping their half-lit biri may also lead to fire. Awareness should be created to address such problems, he added.

Environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty said the rising incidences were due to the failure of the forest department to take remedial steps. “The department is supposed to involve people in protecting the forests as per the provisions of Forest Rights Act. But no such initiatives are being taken. Incentives meant for protecting forests are not reaching people,” Mohanty said.