The Raging Forest Fires in California: Can India learn something?

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California is the most populous state of United States of America (USA) and third largest one by area. It his home to almost 40 million residents. It has been a state of setting trends for popular culture, innovation, politics and environmentalism. But, recently the state has been in the news due to its major and rising environmental threat of forest fires which has caused wide-scale harm to both, human life and property.

In an independent risk analysis carried out by the Verisk Analytics, a US-based data analytics company has labeled California as the most wildfire-prone state in 2017.  As per the company’s survey, 2,45,000 households have been identified as extremely or highly prone to wildfire in the state. The state lost around 5 million acres of land due to wildfire in the year 1980. It increased to 7 million acres in 2000. It further increased to over 10 million acres in the year 2015 but in 2018 it decreased to 8.5 million acres.

As per the US Department of Interior (responsible for management and conservation of federal lands and natural resources), 90% of wildfire is caused due to man-made reasons while the remaining 10% is caused due to natural reasons.

In 2018, 52,303 cases of wildfire were reported in the state whereas 8.5 million acres of land was damaged. In 2017, 56,186 cases were reported and around 9.2 million acres of land was turned into ashes. In 2016, 65,575 cases of wildfire were reported but only 5.4 million acres of land was under the radar. The acres of land burned in 2017 were higher than the previous 10-year average, as stated by the National Interagency Fire Centre.

System’s response to forest fires in California

State agencies have taken a number of measures for containing the damage being done by these forest fires. However, one striking measure has been the criminal prosecution of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Company. PG&E has been providing power connections to almost 16 million Californians.  But lately, the company has been reeling under a massive financial burden and has already applied for dissolution, due to increasing liabilities. The company has been alleged to have caused one of the worst wildfires in California, the campfire, which killed 86 people. It remains one of the worst wildfires in the history of USA.

In 2010, PG&E was found guilty of a pipeline explosion in San Bruno, killing 8 and injuring 50 people. In 2017, the company was slapped with a fine of $3 million for violating the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act. In fact, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has blamed 17 fires of 2017 to be caused by the equipment of PG&E only.

Lessons for India

Wildfires are becoming a rapid phenomenon. Most of the nations are struggling because of these uncontrolled and gigantic forest fires. As reported by Down to Earth,  India saw an increase of 125% from 2015 to 207. In 2017, the maximum number of forest fires were reported in Madhya Pradesh (4,781) followed by Odisha (4,416) and Chhattisgarh (4,373).

With summers just a few months away, tackling forest fires is going to be a herculean task for the authorities, both in India and abroad (California). However, the way US courts have cracked down on PG&E offers a lot to learn for Indian courts. In India, it has often been said that a large network of timber mafias and private gangs have been responsible for causing forest fires, especially in the Northwestern states of India like Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. But, no strict crackdown has been initiated by the courts or the forest agencies.

India can also look for building or revamping its emergency forest fire response and action system. Instead of still depending and operating with the help of manual staff, digitalized and tech-driven solutions can be deployed by the government to offer critical insight into the entire management of forest fire operations. In-depth risk and security audit can also be undertaken, especially in the forest regions which are extremely or highly prone to the forest fires.

Data is being considered as a biggest and most valuable commodity now, if forest department starts building a robust data inventory of forest fire incidents, their scale of damage, area, reasons, timelines and interventions taken by the government; it can help the state and central authorities in taking informed and forward-looking decisions resulting in overcoming the serious threat of forest fires, damaging millions of hectares of green cover every year.

(This article is a part of आँकड़े-Data Speaks, a special series of data-driven news on the issues of public importance, being published by TA.)

Rishabh Shrivastava Author

The writer is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Analysis.