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  • Writer's pictureArpit Shah

Deadly Forest Fires in Uttarakhand ?

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

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. As the story gained momentum, the state 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 eased their task to an extent. However, such was the fallout of the initial 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 phenomenon.

With satellite imagery, I am aware that it is possible to do two kinds of fire spotting and monitoring - 1) Active fire detection and 2) Burned area mapping. For this exercise, I have used the latter technique. The Region of Interest is a subset of Uttarakhand state - Kumaon and adjacent regions - supposedly the area maximum affected by the fires as recorded by the forest department. To do the analysis I have used optical imagery as on pre and post crisis days, April 6th and May 26th respectively, to spot the burn severity. The result is below.

Prepared using ESA's Copernicus Sentinel 2B Satellite Imagery. Much thanks to RUS Copernicus and GitHub for the training material. The exercise is meant to be informative and the results are indicative in nature.

To interpret the map, you will have to observe the classification table in the legend section, as proposed by The U.S. Geological Survey. For spotting burned areas due to fire, the bottom three classes are most relevant i.e. from moderate-low to high severity.

In the map, there are two areas visible in particular which fall under significant burn categories - 1) west and central parts of US Nagar district at the bottom and 2) a small area above the Almora district label towards the top. The rest of the regions do not appear to have significant burn indications, 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 have been reported from), US Nagar is non-hilly and plain-like in terms of its terrain which should make you wonder as to why this region is appearing to have so many burned areas.

Upon closer inspection of the burned areas in US Nagar using Google Earth, I was surprised to find this -

The burned areas areas in US Nagar are directly above croplands / farmlands!

My friend, Akhil Gupta, who has local area 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 residue to get the field ready quickly for sowing the monsoon (kharif) crop. This strikes to me as akin to the notorious stubble burning practiced by the farmers in Punjab which causes so much pollution in Delhi. As Akhil indicated, practices such as these alongside the timber mafia often act as the impetus for major fires in this region.

Isn't this interesting?

While this finding really intrigued me, I am sure the forest department closely monitors such activities. Afterall, they too use satellite imagery to spot and monitor forest fires. Nonetheless, the findings from this analysis indicate to me that the claims of rampant 'forest' fires in this region were largely unsubstantiated and/or brought under control effectively by the forest department with assistance from Mother Nature (read Rains). A much needed respite from the horrors of 2020!


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