A wildfire broke out at the foothills of Cheiraoching from the eastern side in Imphal, Manipur during an event - “Athoubasingi Numit” on April 11 at around 12:45 pm. The fire broke out while people were paying floral tributes to those who laid down their lives for the state of Manipur, at the Martyr's Memorial Complex at Chingmeirong Cheiraoching. This is one such case of several massive forest fires reported in the state in the recent past.
Manipur has been witnessing increased incidents of massive wildfire or forest fire in different parts of the hills areas in recent years. While some blame the practice of slash and burn farming method in hill areas as one of the factors causing forest fires, some others point to the clearance of vast forest lands for poppy cultivation.
Poppy cultivation is rampant in some hill districts of the state despite the government war on drugs campaign and the drive against poppy plantation. And, forest fire caused by burning down of forest for poppy cultivation is causing deforestation in Manipur. Massive deforestation in Manipur is now resulting in water scarcity in the state. And, the problem of water scarcity is becoming widespread, from the hill areas to the valley.
Frequent forest fires have resulted in increased deforestation and degradation of the state forest areas, further causing huge devastation to the state’s environment and ecology, which is considered one of the major biodiversity hotspots in the world.
According to authorities, the state has been receiving adequate rainfall despite a change in the pattern of the rainfall. However, it is now struggling to address the problem of water crisis being faced in the valley and hill areas both.
Amid the water crisis reported not only in Manipur but also in other parts of the country, it has been predicted that many parts of the world are going to experience one of the hottest summers on record this year. There are reports of increased number and intensity of heat waves. With this rise in temperatures, forests have become more perceptible to wildfires and tend to burn more easily than in the past.
In an attempt to address the issue amid frequent reports of forest fire, the administration of hill district Noney on March 17 announced a total ban on illegal lighting, burning and kindling of fire on roads or paths adjoining or passing through protected and reserve forests in Noney district.
The district magistrate stated that it released an order imposing a total ban on "illegal lighting/burning/kindling of fire on roads or paths adjoining or passing through reserved and protected forests", taking into consideration numerous reports of lighting of a fire in reserve and protected forests in various places of the district, posing grave danger to human lives, properties, and ecosystem.
The order mentioned that lighting fire in protected forests violates the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The Noney deputy commissioner further warned that any person found lighting fire in protected forests shall be punishable under section 26 and 33(1) and section 33(2) of Indian Forest Act, 1927.
The order also mentioned the power provided to forest officers or police officers without orders from the magistrate and without a warrant to arrest any person violating the Act. Any person going against the order can be punished with imprisonment of a month or up to five years or with a fine, the order stated.
Fire has always been a natural part of our ecosystems as it is one of the five elements of nature along with air, water, soil, and space. All are important for the survival of man and all living things and to maintain ecological balance of the planet earth.
However, global warming and climate change has contributed to a massive rise in extreme events – especially wildfires, most of which destroy huge areas of forests and wildlife habitats, threatening the survival of hundreds of thousands of animals and all flora and fauna.
It may be mentioned that a wildfire is an uncontrolled fire in an area where there is combustible vegetation. Wildfire usually occurs in rural areas and forests (away from cities). Hence, these fires are also referred to as a ‘wild land fire’ or ‘rural fire’.
Depending on the types of plants present; wildfire can also be classified into brush fire, bushfire, desert fire, hill fire, peat fire, vegetation fire, veld fire and forest fire.
Most organizations consider wildfires to be an unplanned or unexpected event. However, wild land fire is a broad term that includes prescribed fire (voluntary) as well as wild land fire use (controlled fires – WFU).
History suggests wildfires started as early as 420 million years ago when vegetation first grew on the planet land areas. These wild land fires result in catastrophic damage to properties and human life. Natural wildfires are usually the opposite and may have beneficial effects on vegetation, animals, and ecosystems that have developed over the years with the help from natural fires that occur mostly during the dry months.
A wildfire starts when there are combustible objects or dry fuel, there is oxygen in the air and a source to create a spark such as lightning, or human activities like campfires, arson, or cigarettes if not properly extinguished. Dry fuel such as dried grass, leaves, or branches – found in forests in large quantities – make it easier for the fire to grow and spread. Other factors such as dry air and strong winds can increase the chances of a fire occurring or spreading further, hence forest fires are more likely to occur during heat waves. Sometimes, agricultural activities such as land clearing by fire – also known as slash and burn – can also cause a forest fire.
It may be noted that poor farming practices are quite harmful to forests as they contribute to soil pollution and erosion, which creates the perfect conditions for a wild fire to occur.
Invasive and reckless human activities such as land clearing to facilitate industrial and urban expansion have also been found to be a growing cause of wildfires. Statistics show that nearly 85 per cent of global wildfires are caused by humans and their negligence or ignorance. To cite another example, of the massive wildfire that broke out in Turkey in 2021, a staggering 71 per cent of it were also caused by human activities.
No doubt, wildfires are a nearly constant threat to all lives, homes and business – an impact that cannot be diminished – but they are also a threat to ecosystems and climate conditions. A changing climatic condition can make some areas more susceptible to fire and increase the prevalence and size of fires in existing hot spots.
Recent research shows change, across the globe, approximately 20 per cent of carbon is stored in biomass – plants, trees and soil. The biggest amount of that stored carbon is in large, mature forests. As they burn, forest fire releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating already high levels of CO2 and contributing to atmospheric pollution. They can also make it harder for that area to act as a carbon store until new trees grow, which can take years, if not decades.
“How much a single fire can change the carbon cycle is dependent on series of feedbacks and interactions among the climate, vegetation, water levels, and the animals and even microbes in a particular ecosystem," said Kendra McLauchlan, a program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology and author of several papers on wildfire science.
Investments in long-term ecological science, data and community building, many of which funded by the United States National Science Foundation, are helping researchers understand how fire impacts climate change and vice versa.
The National Science Foundation-funded scientists and researchers have found that climate change impacts fire in different ways, as do human efforts to suppress fire. This research has implications for fire management as well as ecological and land management. Studying those interactions is key to helping to predict where, how and when forest fires will occur.
Forest fires and health risks
It may also be mentioned that, according to science, the smoke from wildfires is made up of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other organic compounds. These vary according to several factors, such as the type of vegetation and the temperature of the fire.
Fires also produce fine particles (diameter ≤ 2.5 μm or PM) and ultrafine particles (diameter ≤ 0.1 μm or PM) that can travel up to 1,000 km. It is mainly these particles that are harmful to the health of populations living at a distance from fire outbreaks.
Fine particles produced by wildfires may also contain more oxidative and pro-inflammatory compounds than urban air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
One study suggests that fine particles from wildfires may be 10 times more harmful to human health than those produced by other sources.
Some studies suggest that pregnant women exposed to fine particles from forest fires may be at greater risk of giving birth prematurely or having a low birth weight baby.
In addition, one study found a marked increase in the number of influenza cases a few months after intense forest fires in the Montana region (USA). This could suggest a certain vulnerability to respiratory infections following exposure to smoke.
The fine particles produced by fires could alter the function of macrophages, cells of the immune system, reducing the body’s ability to effectively defend itself against respiratory tract infections. In this sense, some researchers are currently evaluating the impact of air pollution from forest fires on the transmission and severity of COVID-19 cases across the world.
Wildfires can be devastating for the communities living nearby. Emergency evacuations and the loss of one’s physical and social environment are intense stressors that can have an impact on mental health, particularly in children and adolescents. People directly exposed to wildfires are at greater risk of major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders. Access to psychological support services is therefore essential for populations strongly affected by forest fires.
Forest fire or wildfires are also associated with greater use of medical resources. There are more medical consultations in emergency rooms, family medicine clinics and hospitalizations.
In Canada, the annual health costs associated with fine particles from forest fires are estimated at between $410 million and $1.8 billion for short-term exposure. From $4.3 billion to $19 billion are attributable to chronic exposure. This adds to many societal costs, such as those associated with rebuilding infrastructure, contamination of drinking water by smoke ash, and loss of income.
Although exacerbated by human pollution, wild land fires themselves contribute to climate change. Combined with the continued emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, the loss of vegetation in forest areas reduces the absorption of carbon dioxide and thus contributes to the increase in heat waves and the temperature of the earth.
Forest fires could also contribute to the melting of permafrost and thus promote the emission of methane,2 a gas whose potential for warming the atmosphere is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide.
Forest fires burn through hundreds of thousands of acres before they are put out. This results in loss of habitats and destruction for millions of animals! Most of those will become endangered. Animals already endangered would be at a much higher risk of extinction as well!
Australian bushfires have recently resulted in 1 million animal deaths. Globally, the main goal to reduce forest fires and their health consequences would be to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 °C instead of the 2° C targeted by the Paris Agreement. This limited increase would prevent more than 50 per cent of the predicted forest fires if the global temperature rises by 2° C.
To sum up, the air pollution emitted by forest fires is associated with an increase in morbidity and mortality. Some health effects remain to be elucidated. These increasingly frequent fires reflect the impact of climate change on human health. In the short and long term, interventions and prevention measures to protect the population will be necessary in order to mitigate the social, economic and environmental consequences of these climatic upheavals.
(The views expressed are personal)