Over the past five days, the Karnataka Forest Department has been battling a massive fire that swept through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve & National Park in the southern state of Karnataka. The fire has gutted almost 2,000 acres of forest area in the Park, according to Karnataka Forest Minister Satish Jarkiholi.
The burning Bandipur forest along with its extension into both Kerala and Tamil Nadu make up one of the most important sanctuaries for wild elephants, leopards and tigers among the many other native species in the region.
While the Karnataka Forest Department (KFD) has been on fire-fighting duty since day one, they were joined by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on Monday, the fifth day since the fire began.
What caused the Bandipur fire?
Bandipur isn’t prone to “natural” fires. Trees in the area aren’t rough enough and the air not dry enough for bits of trees to rub together to spark, fall to the floor and begin a wildfire.
Any and all forest fires in southern India are man-made – the question is only whether it was “accidental” or “intentional”. Bandipur’s fire “was an act of vandalism”, according to C Jayaram, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests at the Forest Department of Karnataka.
“We will do a thorough investigation a few days after the fire (stops), but it appears that someone has set a dung fire… the person has been identified and will be in police custody soon,” Jayaram told Tech2.
But there’s more to why the fire got so bad. It escalated by several degrees because of a weed – Lantana camara – one of the most invasive in the world. Lantana burns quickly and causes things around it to burn much faster with it, Subhash Malkhede, Assistant Principal Chief Conservator of Forests at the Forest Department of Karnataka, told Tech2.
The many ways fires damage forests
Forest fires of the same scale as Bandipur’s usually leave behind three kinds of damage once the worst is over. One of the more lasting ones is the damage to the forest floor – all the vegetation at ground zero of the fire is wiped out. This damage takes the longest time for the forest to recover from.
Then there are damaged trees – large and medium in height that have fallen not because of the fire itself but naturally, brought down by elephants that live in the forests.
And lastly, there are trees and shrubs quite literally burnt to the ground by the fire. The ‘crowns’ of these trees – the branches, leaves, and reproductive structures extending from the trunk or main stems – are damaged permanently.
The road to recovery
All the foliage and burnt leaves eventually settle as ash and nourish the forest bed. There’s some, but not much, that forest officers and park rangers can do to help Bandipur recover from the fire. A few days after the fire subsides completely, forest officials will assess the damage and study factors that had a hand in it.
“It takes time for forests to recover, but it happens naturally. Most of it will recover quickly after the next monsoon,” Malkhede said. While the officer couldn’t put a number to how long the forest might take to return to its original state, he is certain that there won’t be any permanent damage.
There will be an inevitable, but temporary, dip in the food and medicinal value of the damaged parts of the forest, but “it will all grow back over time.”
How will the wildlife in Bandipur cope?
There are roughly 1,500 people, many of who are local volunteers, that are fighting the fire on the ground. Reports of how bad the damage is are still rolling in, but there are fears of large-scale animal deaths, the bulk of it stoked by fake news reports and WhatsApp forwards.
Some of these images are extremely disturbing – rabbits, snakes, deers and gorillas charred to the bone.
But authorities have confirmed that these are fake and a News Minute report traces each of them back to the location, time and date each of them was taken.
“Animals tend to flee as soon as a fire starts. We haven’t lost wildlife – elephants or tigers or any others in Karnataka to fires,” Malkhede said. “Once the trees and foliage in the forest recoup, animals will return to this damaged area also. It will take surely some time…maybe a year…but they will cope very well.”
Could it have been prevented?
It takes a combination of multiple different things happening at the same time for fires to becomes this bad… this isn’t a “normal fire”, Malkhede told Firstpost. “There are conditions where you have normal fires, and we do take precautions to handle those fires.”
Fire lines – where a long strip of shrubs and trees are cleared from the land, like a barrier, so that flames from a fire don’t spread from one section to another – are part of the forest department’s routine precautions. On call when there are reports of a fire are also fire stations, which are littered across different parts of the forest.
But in the case of Bandipur, there was too much that happened too fast.
“Usual precautions like fire lines and fire stations didn’t stop the fire (from) spreading because of the high temperatures… and very high wind speeds.”
While new flames are spreading quickly across a forest, there’s only so much that officials on the ground can do, Malkhede said.
As of the most recent reports, two Air Force helicopters have joined officials and volunteers on the ground to douse the worse of the flames using ‘Bambi Buckets’. These are specialised buckets suspended using a long cable from the chopper to deliver water for aerial firefighting. Each of these buckets can collect water from an open water body and dunk it on top of flaming treetops as controlled by the helicopter crew.
What can you do to help?
KFD has requested anyone wishing to volunteer their help, drones or both to the firefighting effort to get in touch with Satish K V, a Range Forest Officer at Mysore Zoo at 9686668867.
Also being requested for are supplies – food, water, torches and medicine for the hundred of volunteers and officials on the ground at Bandipur. These can be dropped off at the Mysore Zoo in person or via the many pickups being arranged from around the state by the Forest Department, via Mr Satish K V.