What Happened in Similipal?

While the forest fires at Similipal have now been contained, let us understand why forest fires happen and what exactly happened at Similipal.

Just last week, the social media platforms were abuzz with news related to a massive forest fire inside the Similipal National Park in the Mayurbhanj district of the state of Odisha. Hashtags like #SimilipalBurning, #SimilipalFire, and #SimilipalForestFire were some top trending hashtags on Twitter and were a centre of attention for days. Given the vast amount of people on these platforms nowadays, social networks have become a fundamental tool in spreading messages and awareness about the environmental crisis. And the Similipal Forest Fires, too, received their share of heightened concern, which contributed to prompt action by the officials to tackle the issue of forest fires.  

Similipal Forest Fire - Representative pic

The Reason Forest Fires Happen

The reason for the fires can be both natural and human-caused activities. And these fires can happen anywhere at any time. Thunderstorms and lightning are some of the biggest causes of forest fires across the world. Other natural causes include volcanic activity and heat leading to spontaneous combustion of forest litter on the ground. On the other hand, the causes of man-made forest fires are plenty and can be accidental, intentional or caused because of negligence. Forest fires have been happening for as long as there have been forests on earth. It is a part of a process that often leads to getting rid of natural waste and helping in the regeneration of forests. Forest fires are completely normal and natural. The problem occurs when they become difficult to contain. 

Forest Fires in India

A report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, India states that there has been over a 50% rise in the number of forest fires in India in recent years. Ecologically sensitive areas such as the Himalayas and the dry deciduous forests in states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Assam are mostly affected by the raging forest fires. The areas in central and southern India face a dry period of over six months, making them vulnerable to fires. While with north-eastern states, the tropical evergreen forests are less likely to catch fire on their own. The major reason for fires in these regions is Jhum or slash-and-burn cultivation. It is seen that the forests in the north-eastern region and the central part of India are most prone to fires. 

What Happened at Simlipal?

Odisha’s Similipal Tiger Reserve is a part of the Mayurbhanj Elephant Reserve, which contains many other protected areas. The entire park covers an area of 2,750 square kilometres (1,060 square miles) - making it the seventh-largest in India. The forest fires at the Similipal are said to have started around February 23. A tweet sent out by Akshita M Bhanj Deo, a daughter of Praveen Chandra Bhanjdeo, the 47th ruler of India’s Bhanja dynasty, on 1 March first highlighted the situation at Similipal. Her tweet read:

Mayurbhanj had devastating forest fires this past week, a week ago close to 50kg of ivory was found, a few months ago local youth reported on sand/timber mafias in Simlipal. Apart from a few state media, NO national media is covering Asia’s 2nd largest biosphere burning #simlipal - Akshita M. Bhanj Deo (@TheGreatAshB) March 1, 2021.

After her tweet garnered much attention, the government of Odisha sprang to action and took stock of the situation. 

Of the twenty-one ranges inside the forest, eight ranges have been affected by fires. Lala AK Singh, a retired wildlife researcher for the forest department of the Odisha government and a notable Tiger Expert, said that the core areas of the forests are especially vulnerable because of their inaccessibility to the firefighters. He also added that the entire forest department is on alert during the summer months of March through May. The inferno at the core of the forest will also lead to a conflict between the animals and humans as many wild animals such as tigers, elephants, leopards and bears will enter nearby villages to escape the fires. Singh also added that the fire seems to have started as a result of both man-made and natural disaster. He said, “Around 90 percent of forest fires were human-made, with the rest being caused due to lightning and friction caused by falling rocks.”

Sashi Pal, the principal chief conservator of the forest for the Odisha forest department, said, “Fires were a natural part of the forest cycle, especially during the dry season. But they needed to be controlled and not allowed to sweep large areas. The recent forest fire in Similipal is a combination of a very dry summer and carelessness by people who had been hunting and collecting Mahuli flowers”

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s office also took to Twitter to update about the reviewed situation. This followed after Prakash Javadekar, the Union Minister for Forest, Environment and Climate Change asked for an updated report on the Similipal forest fire. The CMO said: 

CM @Naveen_Odisha reviewed the situation following the forest fire in Similipal National Park and asked officials to take preventive measures to control it. CM said Similipal is an invaluable treasure not for the country but for the entire world — CMO Odisha (@CMO_Odisha) March 3, 2021.

A day later, the CMO again took to Twitter and said:

Similipal is an invaluable treasure not only for the country but also for the entire world. The temperatures are extremely high this year; the dry deciduous forests are on fire and are being attended to on priority. The forest fire is under control and there is no loss of lives or any damage to the big trees. A standard operating procedure has been issued to deal with the situation and senior officials are present on the spot to monitor the forest fire and give daily updates — CMO Odisha (@CMO_Odisha) March 4, 2021.

A Need To Control Human Activity in Protected Areas — The Cause for the Fires

Many wildlife experts believe the reasons for the Similipal forest fires are majorly man-made. The forest, a dry deciduous type, becomes highly inflammable due to the lack of precipitation between January and April. And it is not unusual for the forest to catch fire two to three times during this period. 

The period between January and April also coincides with Akhand Shikar - a tribal ritual prevalent among the many forest-dwelling communities. Many Adivasis are known to clear the ground for the ceremony by setting it on fire. Another reason that they clear the forest grounds is to help them see the lurking carnivores animals and prevent a possible attack on the group of people.

Many people are also known to enter the forest to collect the Mahuli flowers. These sweet flowers are known to possess ethnic values among the locals who collect the flowers to make various food products and medicines. Also called the mahua flowers, these flower extracts are also used as sweetening agents in many traditional dishes because of their high sugar content. The tribals are known to enter the forests to collect minor forest products, which are known to provide a livelihood to the locals.

Surjendu Kumar Dey, an environmentalist, added that while the government cannot stop the Adivasis from entering the forest, they must put in place a standing operating procedure where the tribals are prohibited from entering certain protected areas and lighting firecrackers which is one of the main causes for the start of forest fires. 

Similipal Fires Enter the Core Area 

On the evening of March 7, 2021, the fires that have been raging for almost two weeks started to travel from the buffer area to the core area. With every passing hour, these fires were spreading to newer areas. And to add to that was the lack of a proper pedestrian path making it difficult for the firefighters to enter into the core. These firefighters had to seek help from the forest dwellers to help stop the spreading of the fire. Teams of Odisha fire services were stationed at Jashipur and Bisoyi divisions. Until last week, dry spells and the piles of leaves were acting as catalysts for the forest fires, making them spread even faster. The fire entering the core has possessed a huge challenge for the fire squads. As many as 10,000 people - including the locals, volunteers, police, firefighters, and forest officials have been helping in extinguishing the fire at the Similipal Forest. The fire reaching the core of the forest has also resulted in wild animals like elephants and wild boars escaping the protected areas and entry into human habitations. 

Some experts also believe that the recently planted eucalyptus trees at the Similipal Tiger Reserve may have only added to the fire, continuing to burn even after 15 days. Eucalyptus trees are highly inflammatory due to the high oil content in their leaves. These tall trees easily catch fire if the ground beneath is covered is littered with fallen leaves and dried grasses. This fire can then spread through the crown of the trees. 

Rains to the Rescue

On 10 March 2021, parts of Odisha’s Similipal Tiger Reserve received unseasonal rainfall. Locals, forest officers, and firefighters who have been working tirelessly for over two weeks to contain the fire were seen rejoicing and believed the rainfall was 'divine intervention'. Unfortunately, the region only received about 10.6 millimetre of rainfall, which is not enough to put out the fires. 

Forest Fires Now "Totally Contained and Controlled"

As of 15 March 2021, the Government of Odisha has said that the forest fires are now ‘contained and controlled.’ Dr Sandeep Tripathy, the state government's Forest Fire Task Force chief, has said that there is no continuous fire as of now. 

However, since we are just at the beginning of the summer months and the temperatures are expected to only rise from here on, the State Government has asked the field officers to be alert and prevent any rapid spread of fire. As per the Forest Survey of India Alerts information, there is no ongoing fire in the forest at this point. Currently, eight teams of the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force along with the fire officials are actively engaged in dousing the remaining fire. 

Aaditee Kulkarni

Aaditee Kulkarni

Jeevoka member since Aug 2020