Odisha forest fires: Similipal Tiger Reserve continues to burn; Kuldiha sanctuary in flames too

Twelve of the 21 ranges in Odisha’s Similipal Tiger Reserve have been burning for a fortnight now. Despite the forest department saying the fire spots are under control, environmentalists claim otherwise. Meanwhile, the adjoining Kuldiha sanctuary has also caught fire. Why have the number of fires and their duration increased?

Monalisa Patsani
| Updated: March 8th, 2021

Forest fire rages in Simlipal Tiger Reserve, Odisha. Photo: @IYCOdisha/twitter

Bhubaneswar, Odisha

For a fortnight now, the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district has been burning. Twelve of the 21 ranges in the 2,750 square kilometre-reserve, have been affected by forest fires, claim news reports. While forest officials are trying to bring the forest fire under control, M Yogajayananda, regional chief conservator of forest, Baripada circle, was quoted by newspapers as saying that “some amount of rain is necessary to keep more fires from coming up”.

Meanwhile, latest reports inform that the adjoining Kuldiha sanctuary has also caught fire. A local outfit ‘Bhanja Sena’ has called for a 12-hour bandh in Mayurbhanj district March 10 to protest what it alleges is the administration’s failure to control the fire in the tiger reserve.

A number of forest fires were reported on February 22 in Betnoti, Deuli, Pithabata, Kaptipada and Udala ranges of Similipal. It has since also affected the Bangriposi, Dukura, Rasgobindpur, Podadia, Thakurmunda Barehipani and Astakuan ranges. The forest officials claim the fire has been brought under control but, on the evening of March 7, social media users put out videos of another fire in Bhanjabasa range.

“The fire is under control and the department has increased manpower working on the field,” JD Pati, deputy director of the Similipal Tiger Reserve, told Gaon Connection. “Whenever we get local information about a fire, we immediately douse it. The fire here is not a canopy fire, but ground fire [it moves more slowly than canopy fire],” he said, warning that the impending heatwave and dry spells in the summer season would result in more fire points being reported.

According to him, since September last year, there has been no rainfall in Odisha and a heatwave started from February 1. “This is the reason we are witnessing multiple fire points not only in Similipal but also in other parts of Odisha. This is the situation in the entire eastern region,” Pati said.

At present, more than 1,200 people have been engaged to control the fire in Similipal. This includes 750 forest department staff and 450 temporary staff who double up as fire watchers. They manage fires using 40 four-wheelers and 320 blowers, a high-ranking forest official said. A fire line has been created for around 2,000 kilometres in the reserve, he added.

No animals or birds have perished in the Similipal fire though there is deep concern about the plight of the animals, reptiles, amphibians and birds inside.

Bijoy Kumar Mohapatra, ranger of Kuldiha Sanctuary, told Gaon Connection: “There were a few incidents of forest fire in the sanctuary, but they have been controlled.  We created a fireline for around a hundred kilometres, but observed that villagers started a fire in another area to catch wild boars.”

Twelve of 21 ranges in Simlipal are on fire destroying countless medicinal plants, killing endangered species. Photo: By arrangement

Nearly 50% of Odisha’s forests fire-prone

According to the 2019 Forest Survey of India (FSI), nearly half of Odisha’s total forest cover of 51,618.51 square kilometres is fire prone in varying degrees — 2.82 per cent is extremely fire prone, 7.73 per cent very highly fire prone, 13.32 per cent highly fire prone, 19.96 per cent moderately fire prone and 56.17 per cent less fire prone.

Usually, forest fires are reported from February to April. However, the frequency and duration of these fires has gone up due to an increased dry spell, said Pati. In fact, Forest Survey of India (FSI) reports said that from February 27 this year to March 1, more than 10,000 fire alerts have been reported across Odisha’s forests.

A fire was reported on March 4 from Hindol forest in  Dhenkanal district. A few elephants were trapped there, but escaped unharmed, and the fire has been doused. Forest fires have also been reported from Keonjhar, Ganjam, Paralakhemundi, Rayagada and other districts, but have since been controlled, officials said.

“In Odisha, once every three years, we witness heatwaves and longer dry days, which contribute towards forest fires,” informed Pati. Also, during winter, the leaves of the ubiquitous sal trees fall and anthropogenic fire (caused by humans) incidents are reported.

Ranjan Panda, a Bhubaneshar-based environmentalist also blamed the rising heat for a rise in the forest fires. “Rising heat could trigger forest fires. The heat is increasing and we are experiencing some kind of forest drought. The early arrival of summer inside the forest and temperature rise are factors that enable the spread of  fire,” Panda said.

On March 5, Sashi Paul, principal chief conservator of forest wildlife, Odisha, visited the core area of Similipal (around 1,194 sq km) to assess the forest fire and loss of flora and fauna. He admitted the fire had caused extensive damage in Thakurmunda and Podadiha ranges, but claimed it had been controlled. Other officials said most fire points across Similipal had been controlled.

However, satellite imagery from the FSI and the US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Fire Information for Resource Management System on March 6 shows hundreds of ‘red’ fire spots in Similipal.

Pati told Gaon Connection that “the majority of the fire has been controlled in Similipal, and our staff has doused a few minor fire points”. He said there was no threat of a large-scale forest fire since “there is no bamboo or pine forest in Similipal”. 

Pati also claimed the fire points on satellite images might also be fire points created by the forest department — fire lines, controlled burning, counter burning, and the like. “Satellites can only identify the temperature and not the intention,” he said.

The frequency and duration of these fires has gone up due to an increased dry spell, say experts.Photo: Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences/twitter

Human factor at work?

Ajit Satpathy, district forest officer (DFO) of Anandpur, and former DFO of Similipal said such forest fires are fairly regular in Odisha. “Fires here are usually caused by humans and its spread depends on natural factors such as wind, and high temperature, besides the presence of dry leaves. This year, we have been experiencing high temperatures since late February, and so, the number of fire points has increased,” he told Gaon Connection.

There are some reports that accuse poachers, or tribal people for causing the forest fire during mahua collection.

Biswajit Mohanty, Bhubaneswar-based  former member of the National Wildlife Board said the maximum number of forest fires are caused by poachers. “As per our observation, around sixty per cent of forest fires are caused by poachers, twenty per cent during collection of mahua, ten per cent collection of tendu (kendu) leaves, and the balance by nomadic tribes who light fires while collecting honey,” he elaborated.

Forest officials also claimed most forest fires are caused when villagers set fire under the mahua tree, when they burn some patches to help growth of succulent grass for their livestock, or light a fire to keep animals at bay. Accidental fires caused by a still-smouldering beedi or cigarette are common too, said Pati.

Giri Rao from Vasundhara, who works for the rights of forest dwellers said accusations by some officials that tribal people caused the fire when they went to collect mahua flowers is wrong. “There are no mahua trees inside Similipal forest. They can only be found outside the buffer zone,” Rao claimed.

According to him, tribal communities living in forest areas often work together to protect the forest. “When there is a forest fire, a member from every household comes out to stop the fire. If not, they pay a fine of thousand rupees as decided by tribal elders. So, blaming villagers for forest fires is not right. Instead, forest officials should involve villagers to control such fires,” said Rao.

There are some reports that accuse poachers, or tribal people for causing the forest fire during mahua collection. Photo: Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences/twitter

Forest fire rages on

Dhaneswar Mohanto, a social activist from Jashipur in Mayurbhanj district, claimed he saw fire points inside Similipal even  on March 6. “Similipal is still burning. Claiming that the fire is under control is wrong as we can still see fire and smoke in many parts of the reserve. Every day, a team of forest officials goes in to douse the fire,” he told Gaon Connection.

Akshita M Bhanj Deo, an erstwhile royal whose residence Belgadia Palace in Mayurbhanj is located  between the Simlipal and Baripada forest reserves, has been tweeting about the fire since March 1. She told Gaon Connection: “Satellite images show a fire in the buffer zone of Similipal. My field visits to villages indicate the same. The smoke is affecting all of us.”

Rao told Gaon Connection the fire would affect the life and livelihoods of many villagers, who are already suffering the economic effects of the COVID-19 lockdown and job losses. “They are dependent on the forest for food. The Kharia community of Similipal is known for its honey collection. They fear hives could have been destroyed in the fire, or the bees might have abandoned the hive due to the smoke. They might not have any honey to gather,” he told Gaon Connection.

According to Mohanty, the Similipal fire might have caused much destruction to ground-dwelling creatures such as mongoose, snakes, lizards, frogs and pangolins. “The fire would have also destroyed  many young plants. The forest will take time to recover,” he told Gaon Connection.