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Similipal Fires: The Importance Of Communities In Disaster Prevention

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With over 300 identified fire points, the recent widespread Similipal forest fires have gained national attention. Fires in the Similipal National Park are common. This time around, however, with the rapid spread and the prolonged struggle to douse the flames, it seems the fires and their magnitude were unexpected.

But, were they really?

Image source: Odisha Forest and Environment Department

A deep dive into Similipal National Park’s history with environmental and administrative grievances begs to differ. It reveals numerous foreboding moments that not only highlighted the threats to the Park and its inhabitants but also provided time to incorporate an effective prevention measure: community involvement.

High Temperatures

Odisha is no stranger to forest fires. 23,859 of them were reported in the State since November 1, 2020— the highest among all the states. Similipal is particularly prone to forest fires in the months where trees dry up and shed their leaves. The Park experiences rainfall shortly after, providing a natural control mechanism for the fires. This year, an absence of rainfall and an early onset of a summer heatwave created an atmosphere vulnerable to rapidly spreading flames.

Increasingly rising global temperatures have signalled the need for more robust identification and control mechanisms. This has not gone unnoticed by officials.

The annual fire control budget of the State is estimated to be INR 50 crore, a number that has steadily improved over the last decade. A state-controlled toll-free number allows fire incidents to be reported by locals. However, a number of forest dwellers remain unaware of the helpline.

This is an unfortunate oversight, given that forest dwellers and local communities are more likely to identify and report a forest fire before satellites do. The National Action Plan on Forest Fires by the MoEFCC (2018) emphasises the need to provide capacity training and incentive to communities to encourage fire reporting. The plan has, however, not been put in operation by State officials.

As stated by Akshita Bhanja Deo, a member of the royal family of Mayurbhanj: “There is an immense trust deficit. Neither the local community have not got any incentive nor the civil society has been brought in with a detailed plan of action. Stripping away forest ownership from local communities means they are removed from the healthy upkeep of the forest.”

Poaching

Similipal is home to an estimated 42 species of mammals, 264 bird species 29 reptile species and 12 amphibian species. Frequent reports of captured ivory, animal skin and carcasses are not surprising. Just last month, an undercover operation retrieved 45 kg of ivory from poachers in the area.

Despite the presence of anti-poaching teams and much training, poaching remains an imminent threat to the national park. A report by Belinda Wright and Biswajit Mohanty in 2010 stated that a number of poaching incidents go unreported by forest officials, with associated evidence often destroyed. This seems to be a trend that seems to continue even today, with Down To Earth reporting the lack of transparency and accountability of officials in poaching incidents.

However, it is important to understand that poaching is not a standalone danger. Poachers often start forest fires in order to lure animals into the open. An activity that has been pointed out as a possible source of the current Similipal fires. Improved anti-poacher training, greater supervision and a more robust allocation of funds are only a few of the ways to reduce the risk of poachers in the park. Numerous reports emphasise the need for community involvement to effectively identify, report and capture poachers since they are often members of nearby localities. This is a prospect that remains unexplored.

Forest Collectors

Similipal National Park also remains at risk of widespread fires due to the activities of non-timber forest product (NTFP) collectors, who often start fires in an attempt to clear the forest bed and make the act of collecting Mahua flowers easier. Local beliefs that newly planted Sal trees will grow better if areas have been burnt also contribute to fire incidences. These fires, although small, can spread rapidly in a dry forest if they remain unchecked.

Tackling this issue is relatively more simple since it involves educating and training NTFP collectors and locals. Teaching them how to light controlled fires and douse them before they escalate can be a helpful prevention technique.

It is clear that community involvement is necessary to develop an effective forest fire prevention plan. It is not clear why such a program is yet to be put into action despite numerous reports and studies pointing towards the obvious benefits.

As of 11th March, reports state that the fires in Similipal have been fully contained due to rainfall and hailstorms. Widespread destruction of medicinal plants and wildlife fatalities have been reported.

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