|Its mid-summer and the mercury is rising at a fast pace! Hotter
weather means drier plants and forests. Hundreds of homes and hundreds of thousands of
acres of forest in Texas, United States, have already been burnt by wildfires this year.
Wildfires in Australia threaten major cities like Melbourne and Sydney every summer. In
India, it is said that wildfires affect 55 per cent of the forest area every year! 99 per
cent of these devastating fires are started by people!
Why? Because controlled burning can actually help prevent larger, more devastating fires.
Disaster strikes when calculations go awry and the wind begins to blow the wrong way...
I n India, wildfires cause loss of valuable timber
resources and soil erosion. They degrade water catchments resulting in a loss of useable
water, and of wildlife habitat. Wildfires all over the world destroy trees and plants,
that consume carbon di oxide. Thus leading to an increase in global warming.
If these fires lead to degradation of the environment and have the potential to be lethal,
why would people start fires on purpose? Our cover story Shifting Cultivators
(pages 62-68) highlights how forest fires can be beneficial in India. Even in some parts
of the United States, forest undergrowth is burnt to help protect the old growth, incase
of an accidental fire. Planned burning actually helps to reduce the scale of future fires.
But, what happens when the wind blows the wrong way? Uncontrolled fires can become deadly!
Wildfire needs three ingredients to burn, oxygen, fuel to burn (trees, shrubs, grass or
houses), and a heat source to start. The weather, type of fuel, and topography of the
surroundings can all lead to a severe fire. On a windy day, sparks from a common farm fire
can travel and ignite any dry material it hits. The amount of flammable material
surrounding the fire and the wind will help determine how quickly and how far a fire will
burn. If there is a lot of dry material the fire will burn more, dry out the surrounding
material even faster, and spread more quickly making the disaster more difficult to
contain. If fire is on a hillside, it will spread quickly uphill but, may burn out fast,
as it wil slow down as it travels downhill.
Wildfires may also burn out if there is nothing else to fuel the fire. Firefighters use
this to their advantage by clearing large areas in the path of the fire of any flammable
material. In some cases firefighters may even fight fire with fire. They clear the path of
any flammable material by burning it with a controlled fire. Another method of killing
wildfires is using water, either rain or water dropped by aircraft can help diffuse it.
So where is the balance between good and evil? The Ministry of Environment and Forests in
India has a National Master Plan for Forest Fire Control that proposes an integrated fire
management programme. This programme will educate people to help reduce the occurrence of
human-caused fires and faster fire detection through a network of observation points,
patrolling, communication, and remote sensing. It will also introduce a forest fuel
modification system, increase the speed of initial attack methods, and have a greater
supply of firefighting resources.
You can also help them by being responsible campers, picnickers, farmers, and smokers. Be
sure to put your fires out completely, dont throw your cigarette butts on the
ground, and be aware of the weather when you start fires on your farms or grazing areas.