As a major forest fire ravages the forests of Uttarakhand, some experts suggest poor rainfall, El Nino and climate warming as causes, while some others point fingers at miscreants.

In terms of the incidences of forest fires, this year is particularly bad. According to data from the environment ministry, a total of 18,451 incidents of forest fires were reported from across the country in 2013, compared with 19,054 in 2014 and 15,937 in 2015. This year has seen a jump, with at least 20,667 fires already reported as on 21 April.

Here’s what you need to know about the Uttarakhand forest fire and how India’s forests are prone to fires:

What is happening?

In December 2015, the environment ministry released the India State of Forest Report. According to the report, India’s forest cover is 701,673 sq. km which is about 21.34% of the country. As per the Forest Survey of India data, almost 50% of India’s forest areas are fire prone but this does not mean that fires affect 50% of the country’s area annually.

The major forest fire season in the country varies from February to June. Reports have estimated that about 6.17% of Indian forests are subjected to severe fire damage annually. According to Ravi Chopra, an environmentalist and a former member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), high temperatures with no atmospheric moisture were the major reason for this year’s fires.

“This year, the major cause is the high temperature and the lack of rainfall. There has been speculation about it being a man-made fire but there is no proof as such," Chopra said. Forest fires can have environmental as well as human-made causes. High atmospheric temperatures and dryness offer favourable conditions for a fire to start, but in India several forest fires are human-made for new flush of grass and agricultural practices like shifting cultivation.

According to James Randerson, professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, environmental factors are critically important in determining the severity of a fire season. “In many forest ecosystems, reduced precipitation before and during the dry season can reduce fuel moisture and lower humidity near the surface, allowing fires to more easily escape from human control, and spread more rapidly over the landscape," Randerson explained. “Low fuel moisture levels also make fires hotter, allow them to consume more fuel, and kill more of the trees inside the fire perimeter," he said in an email to Mint.

Could El Nino have played a role?

The 2015-16 El Nino which is one of the strongest on record, has turned global weather systems upside down. In 2015, Indonesia was severely hit by forest fires, affecting 2 million hectares of land along with 45 million people and 250,000 hectares of crop area in 2015, according to Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System. The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), US, said that one of the most predictable consequences of a strong El Niño is a change in rainfall patterns over Indonesia. “This dry weather was especially problematic because it intensified seasonal fires, which are intentionally lit by farmers to clear land and manage crops," according to NASA.

So could El Nino have played a role in India’s forest fires? “Climate change is causing a gradual but highly significant increasing trend in surface air temperatures, and it leads to record breaking extremes in many areas when it interacts with the normal periodic warming associated with an El Nino," said Randerson. An important climate variable for fire is vapour pressure deficit, he explained. Vapour pressure deficit is a measure that combines temperature and relative humidity near the surface. Warmer temperatures and lower humidity cause vapour pressure deficit to increase which can dry fuels rapidly and allow fires to grow very fast.

“From a wildfire perspective, interactions between El Nino and climate warming can create new extremes in fire behaviour that are driven both by rainfall deficits and extreme temperatures," said Randerson.

What is the damage?

Though the exact damage is yet to be ascertained, environment minister Prakash Javadekar said around 1,900 hectares of forest area is affected. Forest officials fear wildlife could have faced problems too.

India has very poor data regarding forest fire and damages caused by them. Losses like carbon sequential capability, soil moisture and nutrient losses due to forest fire are very difficult to be ascertained but are of utmost importance for environmental conservation. It also contributes to global warming.

What is the government doing about the forest fire in Uttarakhand?

On Sunday, the government said over 6,000 personnel from various state and central agencies are working to put out the raging forest fire in Uttarakhand. Javadekar said all top officers of the forest division are in Uttarakhand right now. “Our first priority is to douse the fire. We will then investigate if there is any foul play," Javadekar added.

The worst forest fires in the last 25 years

According to a report, Forest Fire Disaster Management, by the National Institute of Disaster Management under the Union home ministry, the four worst forest fires in the last 20-25 years are:

1. 1995- Around 375,000 hectares area affected in Uttarakhand

2. 1999 – Around 80,000 hectares area in Ganga-Yamuna watershed

3. 2008 – About 10,000 hectares area in Melghat, Maharashtra

4. 2010 – Around 19,000 hectare forest area in Himachal Pradesh

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