Forest Fires – UPSC Indian Geography Notes

The frequency of Forest Fires is rising annually. Explore this article to understand the origins, consequences, and strategies to alleviate this issue.

While wildfires are a natural phenomenon in certain forest ecosystems, recent years have witnessed an escalation in both the intensity and scope of these fires. Climate change-induced hotter and drier weather, coupled with inadequate land management practices, contribute to conditions conducive to more frequent, larger, and high-intensity forest fires.

The Amazon rainforest encountered a devastating fire from 2019 to 2021, resulting in the destruction of millions of acres of the Earth’s largest tropical forest.

Forest fires

Forest fires can be described as any uncontrolled and non-prescribed combustion or burning of plants in a natural setting, such as a forest, grassland, brushland, or tundra. This process involves the consumption of natural fuels and the spread of fire based on environmental conditions, such as wind and topography.

The spreading of wildfires is influenced by three key elements:

  1. Fuel: This encompasses any flammable material in the vicinity of a fire, including trees, grasses, brush, and even homes. The greater the area’s fuel load, the more intense the fire becomes.
  2. Oxygen: The air supplies the oxygen necessary for a fire to burn.
  3. Heat sources: These sources play a role in igniting the wildfire and raising the temperature of the fuel to levels sufficient for ignition.

In natural settings, especially in higher latitude forests, fires play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem. They achieve this by releasing essential nutrients into the soil and facilitating seed dispersal.

In tropical forests, local and indigenous communities have employed fire for generations to clear land for agriculture.

Causes of forest fires

Natural Causes of Wildfires:

Lightning is a common natural cause igniting fires in trees, with potential wind-driven spread. Additionally, elevated atmospheric temperatures and low humidity can create favorable conditions for spontaneous fire ignition.

Man-made Ignition Sources:

However, the more perilous causes often stem from human activities. Fires are initiated when a naked flame, cigarette, electric spark, or any ignition source makes contact with inflammable material.

Human-Induced Factors:

Various human-led activities contribute significantly to fire hazards, including land clearing, agricultural practices, grassland maintenance for livestock management, extraction of non-wood forest products, industrial development, resettlement, hunting, negligence, and arson. Recognizing and addressing these human-related causes is crucial in preventing and managing destructive wildfires.

Types of forest fires

There are three fundamental types of fires:

Crown fires

  • This type burns trees up their entire length to the top.
  • It spreads through the canopy, moving from treetop to treetop.
  • Considered the most intense and dangerous forest fires, they are challenging to contain.
  • Requires strong winds, steep slopes, and a heavy fuel load to sustain.

Surface fires

  • These fires burn only surface litter like dried leaves, twigs, and grasses.
  • Easiest to extinguish and inflict the least damage on the forest.
  • Often fueled by parched grass or fallen leaves.

Ground fires

  • Also known as underground or subsurface fires.
  • Occur in deep accumulations of humus, peat, and similar dead vegetation that becomes dry enough to burn.
  • Move very slowly but can be challenging to fully extinguish or suppress.
  • Ground fires may smolder for an extended period, even an entire season, until conditions favor their growth into a surface or crown fire.
  • Underground fires spread slowly and are challenging to detect, potentially burning for months, destroying the vegetative cover of the soil.

Consequences of Wildfires

  • Wildfires and Carbon Emissions:
    • Emit billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
    • Harms climate and living organisms.
    • Impacts the carbon cycle due to excess CO2 and vegetation loss.
  • High-intensity Forest Fires:
    • Destroy flora and fauna.
    • Poses a threat to the economy as many depend on the forest for food, fodder, and fuel.
  • Environmental Impact:
    • Burns down small shrubs and grasses.
    • Leads to landslides and soil erosion.
    • Alters the microclimate, creating unhealthy living conditions.
  • Ozone Layer Depletion:
    • Excessive forest fires can contribute to the process of ozone layer depletion.

Forest fires in India

  • India has recently experienced numerous episodes of wildfires.
  • Very recently, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand witnessed significant wildfire breakouts.

Annual Forest Fires Across States

  • Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tripura, Mizoram, and Odisha report frequent forest fires each year.

Mizoram’s Distinctive Situation

  • Mizoram holds the record for the highest number of wildfire incidences in the last two decades.
  • More than 95% of its districts are identified as forest fire hotspots.

Causes of Fires in India

  • In the Indian context, fires result from a combination of natural and manmade factors.
  • Natural causes, such as lightning or the rubbing of dry bamboo, contribute to fires.
  • However, forest officials emphasize that human factors are responsible for almost all forest fires.

Human-Induced Causes

  • Setting up temporary hearths for cooking by herders and gatherers may lead to smoldering fires evolving into forest fires.
  • Burning fields to clear stubble, dry grass, or undergrowth can result in fires spreading to adjacent forests.
  • Sparks can be generated when dry pine needles or leaves fall on electric poles.

Mitigation measures by the government

  • The incidence of forest fires in the country is rising, leading to increased destruction each year.
  • The primary cause is attributed to the slow and gradual approach in addressing the issue.

Lack of Focus and Resources

  • The nation lacks both the national focus and the technical resources essential for sustaining a systematic forest fire management program.

Missing Management Elements

  • Strategic fire centers, coordination among Ministries, funding, human resource development, fire research, and extension programs are notably absent in forest fire management.

Need for Major Improvements

  • Recognizing the severity of the problem, substantial improvements are necessary in the forest fire management strategy for the country.

National Initiatives

  • The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change has formulated a National Master Plan for Forest Fire Control.
  • The Forest Survey of India (FSI) actively monitors the incidence of wildfires.

Comprehensive Fire Management Program

  • The plan advocates for a well-coordinated and integrated fire management program, comprising the following components:
  1. Prevention Strategies:
    • Prevention of human-caused fires through education and environmental modification.
    • Involves silvicultural activities, engineering works, people participation, and education and enforcement.
    • Emphasizes Joint Forest Fire Management for enhanced fire prevention.
  2. Early Detection:
    • Ensures prompt detection of fires through a well-coordinated network of observation points, efficient ground patrolling, and communication networks.
    • Highlights the importance of remote sensing technology in fire detection.
  3. Fire Management Systems:
    • Advocates for the development of a National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) and Fire Forecasting System for effective fire management and administration.
  4. Rapid Response Measures:
    • Emphasizes the need for fast initial attack measures and vigorous follow-up action.
  5. Fuel Modification:
    • Proposes the introduction of a forest fuel modification system at strategic points.
  6. Resource Availability:
    • Ensures the availability of firefighting resources for effective fire control.

Global news on Forest fires

  • In France, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, blazes annually ravage thousands of hectares of land.
  • This marks the occurrence of the second heatwave affecting parts of southwest Europe within a few weeks.
  • Scientists attribute these events to climate change and forecast a future with more frequent and intense episodes of extreme weather, including heatwaves and drought.


In conclusion, understanding the multifaceted aspects of forest fires is imperative for effective management and prevention. Man-made causes, such as the ignition sources of electric sparks, cigarettes, or bidis, contribute significantly to the prevalence of wildfires. Recognizing the three distinct types of fires—crown fire, surface fire, and ground fire—allows for targeted preventive measures, considering their varying risks and impacts. The concept of a firebreak, involving the removal of combustible materials along the fire’s path, emerges as a crucial strategy in the arsenal against wildfires. As countries, including those in Europe, grapple with the increasing threat of these disasters, the interconnected issues of climate change and extreme weather events cannot be overlooked. The formulation of a National Master Plan for Forest Fire Control by the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change in India signifies a proactive step in addressing these challenges. Moving forward, a holistic approach, encompassing education, early detection, and strategic fire management, is vital for mitigating the destructive impact of wildfires on ecosystems and communities.

FAQs on Forest Fires

Q1: What are the causes of forest fires caused by human activities?

Answer. Wildfires can result from a naked flame source, including electric sparks, cigarettes, or bidis, coming into contact with combustible material.

Q2: What are the three classifications of forest fires?


  • The three types of forest fires are crown fire, surface fire, and ground fire.
  • Ground fires occur on land and spread gradually.
  • Crown fires present a high risk as they can rapidly spread from one tree to another.
  • Surface fires, on the other hand, are typically smaller and cause minimal damage.

Q3: What is a firebreak, and how does it contribute to preventing wildfires?


  • A firebreak is a technique employed to halt wildfires by eliminating fuels like grass and trees.
  • Ideally, firefighters remove these fuels along the path the fire is advancing, acting as a barrier to its spread.

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