No one likes dry debris lying around, and fire is the element of choice to get rid of it. But this solution has serious consequences and dangers. In many ways, we are no different from the farmers in Haryana, Punjab and West Uttar Pradesh who burn crop stubble to prepare the ground for the next round of sowing.
Fire devours the dry stubble with ferocity and speed, and there is no credible alternative.
In Goa, come spring and we have a huge problem with dry leaves, grass and any kind of vegetation that dries up and needs to be cleared.
Since Goa is blessed with an abundance of trees and greenery, it also means it periodically has to deal with dry leaves and vegetation. And like the farmers in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, we use fire to get rid of it.
On Friday alone, the Directorate of Fire and Emergency Services received 34 calls, of which 31 pertained to fires in urban areas.
Urban fires in Goa rarely get out of control because the plot sizes are small and the fuel (dry material) is not available in abundance. The resultant smoke pollution, however, is a problem.
Urban fires apart, Goa is presently confronted with forest fires of unprecedented levels. Wildfire has been raging in parts of the Mhadei Wild Life Sanctuary for the last seven days and efforts to put it out have not yet succeeded.
There is news that the intensity is reducing, but no one is likely to breathe a sigh of relief until the last ember is extinguished.
There are 11 active fires at the moment and 512 persons are working round the clock to put them out. The Indian Air Force and Indian Navy have also joined the effort, and the central government has been apprised of the crisis the state is facing.
Truth be told, fires do not start on their own. If one is looking for a natural cause, then lightning is the usual culprit. But not in this case. Hence, the obvious culprit is man.
Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has ordered an inquiry, but one wonders if this investigation will see the light of day. That is because the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary has always been controversial with people on the ground protesting against it.
The pressure to declare the area as a tiger reserve has exacerbated the forest-human conflict.
Chief Minister Sawant told the media that while it is understandable that people living in jungle areas light fires around their dwelling places to clear the place, they should understand that these could get out of hand and destroy flora and fauna.
To understand the relationship between forest fires and man, one needs to look at California which has experienced the most devastating forest fires in the world. California has a five-year average of 6,900 fires and in 2020 – the worst year – it had 15,800 fires.
In almost all cases the initial spark is provided by human negligence. The causes range from campfires, equipment malfunction and power lines to the burning of debris, fireworks and cigarette butts.
As human habitation expands and more and more forest area is mown down to create room for luxury housing, the interface between man and forest increases, and so does the risk of fires.
One hopes the probe ordered by the chief minister will focus more on how the expansion of human habitation is affecting forests and the possibility of a link between the fire and the pressure to create a tiger reserve instead of looking for scapegoats, because this problem is not going to go away. On the contrary, it will get worse as summers get hotter with climate change.