Rapidly Growing Pine Blamed For Forest Fires in Uttarakhand – But Is Eliminating Pine Trees The Answer?

To curb forest fires, a more holistic approach is needed, which acknowledges the laws of the jungle and tries to address the human role, say experts

The forests of Uttarakhand are among the richest and most diverse in India, with 27 reserve forest divisions. But unfortunately Forest fires are increasing in the rich biodiversity of Himalayan region This year, amidst a prolonged spell of hot and dry weather, Uttarakhand saw more than 1,200 incidents of forest fires, which claimed the lives of some forest guards. The Uttarakhand govt blames the rapidly growing presence of pine for the uncontrolled forest fires in the region,About 1,500 hectares of forests got burned in forest fires in Uttarakhand this year, as per government data.

The Uttarakhand government plans to remove pine leaves from the jungles to control forest fires. In May this year, visuals of Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dham clearing pine leaves (pirul) appeared in the media. “Dry leaves of Pirul are the biggest cause of forest fires,” the CM said, while announcing the government’s ‘Pirul Lao-Paise Pao’ campaign, aimed at incentivising locals to help the forest department in collecting pine leaves.

Pinus Roxburghii, commonly known as Chir Pine or Longleaf Indian pine, is a species of pine tree native to the Himalayas. Pine has been an integral part of India’s mountain forests cover since the Himalayas first formed. The native range extends from Tibet and Afghanistan through Pakistan, across northern India (in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh), Nepal and Bhutan, to Myanmar. Himalayan Alpine zone is famous for its beauty.

This ecoregion represents the alpine meadows and shrublands between 3000 and 5000 m in the western Himalaya. It is also tapped commercially for resin. On distillation, the resin yields an essential oil, commonly known as turpentine, and non-volatile rosin. Chir pine rosin is principally used in paper, soap, cosmetics, paint, varnish, rubber and polish industries. Besides these, other uses include manufacture of linoleum etc.

As Uttarakhand blames the rapidly growing presence of pine for the uncontrolled forest fires in the region, the absence of fire lines, inadequate forest staff, climate-induced dry weather and inadequate rainfall also need to be acknowledged in order to find a sustainable solution to the issue.Instead of addressing all these issues together, the decision to target Pine trees , whose frequency and scale is rising, is a myopic strategy.

Experts say in order to curb forest fires, a more holistic approach is needed, which acknowledges the laws of the jungle and tries to address the human role. Pine is just one conifer standing among many other species in the Himalayan slopes. Focusing solely on Pine is incorrect understanding of the Himalayan ecosystem role of climate change, rising temperatures and dryness and is leading to unsustainable solutions.

While it is true that pine in the Himalayan forests is seen as a major cause for the spread of forest fires— the inflammable leaves and resin cause the fire to spread rapidly and go out of control—there are much deeper issues also involved.

Following a ban on cutting green trees at altitudes above 1,000 metres in the 1980s, forests have expanded, and many fire lines have disappeared. The absence of fire lines— which are strips of open land in a forest that stop a fire from advancing— to control these fires is a major factors. Since independence, there has been no review of fire lines, even though the nature of the forest has changed to a great extent.

Migration from villages is also a major reason behind the increase in forest fires. More than 1,000 villages in Uttarakhand have been completely abandoned. And in many villages, only two to four families live. The grass and shrubs growing in these “ghost villages” act as fuel for fire. The consequences of climate change – drier weather, no rain in winter, and less snowfall – also fuel forest fires.

Climate change also plays a big role in aggravating forest fires. Inadequate winter rain—which provides moisture that stops fires from getting out of control—protracted summers and higher temperatures are also fuelling these fires.

The writer of this article is Dr. Seema Javed, an environmentalist & a communications professional in the field of climate and energy

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