Forest Fires in Uttarakhand?
Updated: May 19
Just earlier this week, news sites and social media were abuzz with reports and visuals of one more tragedy of 2020 - deadly forest fires across Uttarakhand - a northern, agriculturally rich state of India crossed by the Himalayas. As the story gained momentum, the state's Forest department came up with clarifications - the fires were not as devastating as claimed and more importantly, were under control. Also, the rains this week had doused the fires and prevented it from spreading further and causing more damage. However, such was the fallout of the initial false reporting that those deemed to have spread misleading information were even charged with a criminal offence.
Some of you may remember that Uttarakhand was severely impacted by forest fires in 2016. Accidental as well as intentional reasons were cited as reasons behind the disaster. Forest fires are not very uncommon though - warm temperatures, low moisture and strong winds at high altitudes are some of the natural causes behind this calamity.
With satellite imagery, I am aware that it is possible to do two kinds of fire monitoring workflows-
1) Active fire detection and 2) Burned area mapping. For this exercise, I have used the latter technique. The Area of Interest is a subset of Uttarakhand state - Kumaon and adjacent regions - supposedly the regions that were affected the most by the fires of 2020, as recorded by the forest department. To do the analysis, I have used Sentinel-2 optical satellite imagery generated before and after the crisis days, April 6th and May 26th of 2020 respectively, to classify the Burn severity. The result of my study has been overlaid on an Imagery basemap below:
Prepared using ESA's Copernicus Sentinel-2B Satellite Imagery. Much thanks to RUS Copernicus and GitHub for the training material.
To interpret the map, you will have to observe the classification table in the legend section, as proposed by The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). For spotting burned areas due to fire, the bottom three classes are most relevant i.e. from moderate-low severity to high severity.
In the map, there are two regions in particular which fall under these burn categories - 1) west and central parts of Udham Singh Nagar district towards the south of the map view and 2) a small area above the Almora district label towards the north of the map view. The remaining regions do not appear to have significant burn damage, although low severity burn areas (colored in yellow) are visible across the map extent, predominantly towards the south.
One interesting aspect to note is that while the terrain of Almora is forested and hilly (and quite possibly, the red colored area within is exactly where the fires had been reported from), Udham Singh Nagar is a non-hilly / plain-like region in terms of its terrain which should make you wonder as to why this region is appearing to have so many burned spots.
Upon closer inspection of the burned areas in Udham Singh Nagar output overlaid on Google Earth imagery, I was able to find this-
Slider of Burned Area Output within Udham Singh Nagar district of Uttarakhand overlaid on Google Earth's Imagery Basemap
The burned areas areas in Udham Singh Nagar are directly above Farmlands!
My friend, Akhil Gupta, who has in-situ knowledge, validated this finding for me - travelers on this route had witnessed the farmlands being burned. Apparently, there was a delay in the spring harvest this season (Baisakhi) which may have compelled the farmers to burn the fields to get it ready in quick time for sowing the monsoon (Kharif) crop. I can't help but be reminded of the notorious stubble burning practices by farmers in Punjab which causes so much air pollution in Delhi-NCR region every year. As Akhil indicated, ignorant practices such as these, as well as the deforestation caused by the timber mafia, often acts as the driving force behind some of the major fires in this region.
The learnings derived from this Remote sensing study and the in-situ observations were an eye-opener for me and perhaps, you found it to be insightful too. I hope that the state forest and agriculture departments are closely monitoring such activities and educate the farmers with better practises and capture the timber smugglers before they wreak further havoc to the beautiful, yet sensitive ecosystem that Uttarakhand is endowed with. I'm aware that they too use satellite imagery to spot and monitor forest fires. Nonetheless, the findings from my study is further proof that the claims of rampant 'forest' fires in this region was largely unsubstantiated, and/or brought under control effectively by the Forest department with assistance from Mother Nature (read Rains).
A much-needed respite in the list of horrors that 2020 is replete with!
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