Author: Aatmesh, Learner at The Integral School, Hyderabad. This is an independent self directed project.

Forest fires are uncontrolled fires that occur in forests. A forest fire is a subdivision of a wildfire, which is defined as : Any uncontrolled fire that occurs in wilderness (brush, forests, grass etc). When a wildfire occurs, it can be further specified based on the type of vegetation through which the fire spreads. A wildfire in a forest is called a forest fire, a wildfire in a bushy area is called a bushfire and so on.

Most of the time, forest fires occur in regions that have extended periods of hot and dry climate. This leaves the vegetation susceptible to fires as dry and hot places are perfect environments for starting and sustaining a fire. So places like South Africa, Australia and much of the U.S experience many forest fires. Normally, one would not associate wildfires with rainforests, as rainforests are wet and humid. Surprisingly, many rainforests have been experiencing an abundance of forest fires. Most of which can be attributed to human activity.

The island country of Indonesia has been experiencing a high increase in forest fires within the last few years. This sharp increase has significant consequences on the world. In this essay, we will explore the following matters…

  • Types of forest fires
  • Movement of forest fires
  • Causes of forest fires
  • Impact of forest fires
  • Prevention of forest fires


Types of forest fires 

Forest fire occur in different types. These types are categorized by the height and region at which the fires occur. The three most common types are : crown fires, ground fires and surface fires. Crown fires occur at the top of forests, or on the “crowns” of trees. Ground fires begin on the ground, but go as high as twelve or fifteen feet. Surface fires are restricted only to the surface or the forest floor.

If a forest fire burns for large amounts of time and spreads wide enough, then it tends to burn up the entire forest. Forest fires can only be categorized (by region and height) before, or if they do not become too large. For people who prevent forest fires, the movement of the fire is another important aspect. For example, the fire could be a crown fire that is spreading downwards as well as from treetop to treetop. These descriptions help them put fires out.

Crown fires are the rarest of the three types. They occur primarily as a result of lightning striking dry branches. The heat from the lightning, causes the dry branches and leaves to ignite, giving birth to a fire. Once the fire has begun, it spreads throughout the tree. From here, the fire can easily spread to other trees (provided they are close enough). In this manner, a crown fire on one tree can lead to fires on numerous other trees. Crown fires spread downwards as well. This occurs when the fire spreads throughout the whole tree, completely engulfing it. Small (burning) branches that fall down help spread the fire to the ground level. The movement of fire from treetop to surface may also occur if the fire spreads to a vine or a smaller tree which makes contact with surface level vegetation. These vines act as ladders, as they transfer the fire from a high level to the ground. Most of the time this process occurs in reverse, with the ladder fuel transferring surface level fires to the treetops. This is because most forest fires are not a result of lightning, but are man made and it is easier for men to create ground level fires, as opposed to crown fires.

Ground fires occur when bushes, adolescent trees and other such vegetation catch fire. This can occur due to unattended bonfires and numerous other sources of heat. Once the bushes and small trees have caught fire, the fire spreads outward to other ground level vegetation as well as upward. Most ground level plants also act as ladder fuels.

Ground fires are always caused by surface fires. A fire cannot start out at twelve to fifteen feet. Ground fires are created when surface fires move upward and outward (from the surface) and then reach ground level. The difference between a ground fire and a surface fire, is that surface fires occur in regions (of the forest) where there are very few tall plants, therefore the fire can only exist on the surface. Ground fires occur when there are taller plants which catch fire (from the surface fire).

The three types of fires comprise of the three levels in a forest : the forest floor – lowest level, surface, the ground level – middle area, ladder fuels and the tree crowns – the highest point of any vegetation in the forest. The image below depicts each level.


Movement of forest fires 

Forest fires move with relation to wind, terrain and vegetation (fuel). The exact details of the fire’s movement can be predicted quite accurately with knowledge of the above details. These details can help in putting out forest fires.

Forest fires and fire in general always spread outward in all directions. If there is not enough fuel in a certain direction, or if that fuel is not easily flammable, then the fire slows down and treats it as an obstacle, going around it. If the area surrounding the obstacle is also not flammable, then the fire stays where it is, until it runs out of fuel. In many forests, certain leaves and branches catch fire more easily than other ones. The fire moves faster through the easily flammable fuels, and often dies down when surrounded by less flammable substances.

Winds increase the intensity of the fire by providing bursts of oxygen. If the fire is spreading against the wind, it intensifies but slows down due to the wind, meeting resistance. If the fire moves along with the wind then it moves faster and burns hotter. These changes in wind are extremely dangerous as the fire may suddenly become extremely hot and intense.

Fires move uphill faster than they move downhill. The flames come into contact with more fuel on uphill slopes and the radiant heat from the flames preheat those fuels, making them catch fire with ease. On a slope whose angle is 10 degrees, the speed of the fire is doubled, meaning that it moves twice as fast as it would on flat land. The opposite occurs if the slope is 190 degrees, the fire then slows down by half. Basically, the time it takes fire to ignite fuel on uphill slopes is far lesser than the time it takes to ignite fuel on downhill slopes, because the fuel on uphill slopes is always in closer contact with the fire and is heated up by heat from the fire.


Causes of forest fires 

Forest fires occur when a fire begins and is nurtured by the surrounding environment. All fires begin when a fuel is heated to its ignition point and then reacts with oxygen. This process is known as combustion. It involves three components : heat, fuel, and oxygen. These three requirements are referred to as the fire triangle. In the case of most forest fires, the heat comes from a bonfire or large flame, the fuel is dry vegetation, and the oxygen is present in the air. Although these three components are not rare, the real cause of most forest fires is carelessness. People forget to extinguish a fire they have made, which allows the fire to spread far and wide. Most of the time, forest fires occur when a large fire is not well controlled. Most smaller fires do not have enough energy and do not spread quick enough to start a forest fire. In Indonesia, forest fires are caused by a farming technique known as slash and burn, combined with certain wind patterns and climate changes.

In recent years, certain parts of Indonesia have been plagued by droughts. This happened due to the wind pushing the rain clouds away. On top of that, global warming has made these rain deprived regions even drier. To top it all off, these regions (of Indonesia) like Sumatra, are full of peatland forests. Peatland forests contain lots of palm trees, and peat is created when these leaves dry up and fall to the forest floor. These peatland forests are highly susceptible to fire and are being destroyed at a rapid pace by the slash and burn technique.

The slash and burn technique is used throughout Indonesia. It is a quick, convenient method of preparing agricultural land for cultivation. In the slash and burn technique, farmers spread peat (a highly flammable congregation of dry leaves) over their land and burn it. This kills the old crops and makes space for new ones. The ash that is produced from burning is also good for cultivating plants. Whatever remains of the crops are then uprooted and slashed. The slash and burn technique itself is not the problem, but the careless use of it is. The use of the slash and burn technique in peatland forest can be dangerous, as the fire may spread as a result of the existing peat. The reason for the rise of the slash and burn technique and the rapid destruction of peatland forest can be attributed to one reason : the need for palm oil.

Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil in the world. Palm oil is a natural oil that is used in 50% of supermarket products. Palm oil is used in hair products, canned food, soaps and the list goes on. This vegetable oil comes from the oil palm plants, which are found in tropical regions like South American countries and Indonesia, Malaysia. Since palm oil is versatile and can be used in a myriad of products, planting oil palms is important. Big companies whose products consist of a large amount of palm oil are on missions to produce more and more plants, in order to make more products. This requirement for palm oil has forced farmers to plant more and more oil palms.

For farmers to plant quickly and keep up with palm oil demand, the fastest method is the slash and burn technique. When used on a small plot, the fire (from the burn part of slash and burn) is easily controlled and farmers can see the entirety of it. But due to more demand, farmers have been forced to plant more palms in massive plots. The expanse of these plots is so large that it is difficult for farmers to keep an eye on the fire. This increases the possibility of the fire spreading without the farmers noticing, which in turn increases the possibility of an uncontrolled fire (which leads to a forest fire). The blame for this can be placed on large corporations like Nestle, for increasing the demand and production of palm oil.

The cause of the fires in Indonesia, is a mix of bad climate, weather and the excessive use of slash and burn to plant oil palms. The impact is extremely harmful to the environment and the country.

Impact of forest fires 

There are many impacts that forest fires have on Indonesia as a country. Some of the impacts are, rises in pollution, rises in extinction, rises in lung disease and an overall rise in deaths.

The smoke and fumes that are produced by forest fires are extremely harmful for humans and animals alike. Breathing in this smoke causes all sorts of lung diseases and breathing problems, not to mention fatalities. Farmers and people who make efforts to put out these fires, or people who live near them often suffer the most.

Animals are more deeply harmed, as there homes, habitats are being destroyed while they are being choked and killed by smoke. The Orangutan is being driven to the brink of extinction due to these forest fires which are occurring in Sumatra, their homeland. Apart from animals, rare floral species are being harmed and Indonesia’s supply of peat is being reduced drastically. The pollution caused by the fires is also significant as it hastens global warming, which in turn will lead to hotter and drier climates and possibly more forest fires.

The impact and repercussions of too many forest fires are grave and serious. Preventing fires in the future is the first step to ending these harmful aspects of forest fires.

Prevention of forest fires 

Preventing forest fires from occurring is very important. The best ways to prevent forest fires are to be conscious of flammable substances and handling lighters cigarettes etc. Not causing a fire is the best way to prevent it. If a fire has already broken out, calling the local authorities and bringing the issue to the fire department should prove useful. Using hoses and buckets of water may also prove helpful.

In Indonesia, alternatives to the slash and burn method should be provided to farmers (ones that don’t start forest fires). An alternate to the slash and burn technique has been discovered in Bolivia, where farmers plant Inga trees (which increase soil fertility, block sunlight from weeds and much more.) before they begin planting the required crops. Aside from that, firm laws should be made about the slash and burn technique to prevent it. Furthermore, the government should monitor plots of land and determine if fires are being caused, how they are being caused, and who is responsible (who owns a piece of land or plot). An even better solution – though highly unlikely – is for companies not to rely upon palm oil (so heavily) and use other sources of fat in their products. But that would be a long term solution. The most effective way to put a stop to the fires would be to take immediate action in the form of law and law enforcement. Making laws is not enough if the laws are not followed, so enforcement should happen along with a heavy punishment to dissuade the slash and burn technique in the future. Although the damage may never be undone, it can certainly be minimized.




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