Kerala forest department activates its fire alert mechanism in forest areas

Fire in garbage pile goes out of control in Bengaluru.

KOCHI, Feb16: With mercury levels shooting up in several parts of the state, the Kerala forest department has activated its fire alert mechanism in forest areas and buffer zones.

While officials and experts say that Kerala does not need to worry about fires of the magnitude reported in other parts of the world, there is a growing debate even on controlled fires. Should the department continue with the system of having controlled fires? Does the protection mechanism end up doing more harm than good? These are the questions that are being asked in the backdrop of the global warming, climate change and invasion of exotic species that is changing the natural vegetation of Kerala’s pristine forests.

“I don’t think that we should opt for a complete protection and prevention mode. Forest is an everchanging ecosystem which has its own checks and balances. These corrections happen when trees fall, when fire rages and even when there is over-grazing.Grasslands, which are home to a unique ecosystem, will continue to develop only when such events happen,” said V Gopinathan, former principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF).

He said that Wayanad has a special ecosystem.”We have always felt that social pressures have forced too much protection in the forests so much so that we are seeing an increase in exotic plant species which is actually not being eaten by most animals,” said Gopinathan.

“In fact, these systems help prevent the humananimal conflict. The animals will stay away in the wild without coming into the human or buffer zones,” said James Zacharias, a former forester.

However, forest researchers beg to differ. They say that there is scientific evidence and that it is time to do away even with the concept of controlled fires.”Certain herbivores including the Nilgiri Tahr needs fresh grass and the department has the concept of controlled fires to destroy the old grass so that new grass germinates. In the topical evergreen forests, there is enough moisture that helps in growth of vegetation even if there’s a fire event,” said E A Jayson, senior scientist, department of wildlife biology , KFRI.

 He said that KFRI has been doing studies looking at the different aspects of forest elements including the soil, microbes and vegetation. “The indicators are that we will need to review some of our old concepts of how we look at fire.”

“While we have not seen any changes in the microbial behaviour in the sense that after a fire event, we have noticed that the microbes re-colonise. But in case of soils, the changes are very phenomenal.Soil nutrients are depleting and we have started doing tests on soil samples in places affected by intense and frequent fires. Even controlled fire incidents are a cause for concern,” said soil scientist M P Sujatha.

 She said that there is growing scientific evidence.”When there is change in temperature, there will be changes. We have found that if there is rain after the fire, all the soil nutrients get washed out. And we normally get the good rains in summer too,” she added.