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Fighting forest fires

Kedar Kulkarni

“Papa, I just read in the news that there is a huge fire in the forests of Australia and millions of wild animals are consequently dying. How can such a fire break in a forest? Can it not be brought under control easily? Don’t they have good firefighting equipment?” Raju was distraught.  He continued, “How can such fires be prevented? Is it man-made or does it start naturally?”

His father replied, “Raju, forest fires are very deadly. A massive forest fire, like the one in Australia, covers at least hundreds of square kilometers.. You must have seen how they deploy helicopters to shower water from above – but because the area is vast, it becomes very difficult to extinguish these fires. The main causes can be natural like a lightening strike that starts off the fire at a dry part of the forest part. The fire then spreads due to the fanning action of the wind. Dry bushes along the ground catch fire first. The fire spreads very quickly, and with a tremendous amount of heat generated, the trees also start catching fire and then gets beyond control. Such fires will turn everything in its way into ashes.”

“A very common natural causes are lightening strikes which initiate such fires. Others causes include volcanic eruptions which ignite fires that spread far off. Additionally, many times such fires are caused by humans. A simple act of throwing a burning cigarette butt can explode into wildfire. Other human causes are campfires that are not extinguished or left unattended. Winds can carry the burning spark and start a wildfire very easily. Another reason can be burning firecrackers. There are many cases where crackers have led to fires as the sparks fly everywhere. If there is dry grass nearby then the fires can spread easily.” he continued.

“But papa, people need to be careful. How can someone leave the fires unattended and be so careless?” said Raju.

“That’s true. Another cause of a fire is the burning of trash, dried leaves or other waste piles in remote places that then goes unattended. The worst reason for such fires can be arson where people set fires delibrately to destroy properties out of animosity or in mob violence. Imagine the impact on the wildlife who have nowhere to go. A fire of this magnitude, like we have seen in Australia, is horrifying. It is feared that millions of animals will cease to exist. In fact, it can destroy the entire diverse biodiversity of that area.”

“I read that the koalas and kangaroos in that area are also dying. Koalas are very slow animals; they cannot flee from the fire.” Raju was upset as koalas were his favourite animal.

“Such fires can bring a great change in the climatic conditions of the region. The smoke leads to air pollution. Further, the high temperatures will make the soil lose its nutrients and unsuitable for any vegetation,” his father added.

(Writer is a mechanical engineer and runs a hands-on science activity centre at Margao.)


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