Fire-resistant forests? Yes, indeed!

The haystack of needles of conifer trees that shed regularly is especially vulnerable to forests fires

Arshad H Abbasi June 05, 2024
Engineer Arshad H Abbasi has an extensive experience of working on water and power issues in Pakistan and Afghanistan


Pakistan is a forest-poor country with just 0.04 hectares of forest per person compared to the global average of 1.0 hectares. According to official statistics, the nation’s planted and forested areas total 4.2 million hectares, or 4.8% of its total land area. However, there is a bit of disagreement on the official claim. According to Global Forest Watch, Pakistan’s tree-covered area was 648,000 hectares in 2010, accounting for more than 0.74% of the country’s total land area. From 2001 to 2023, Pakistan lost 9,940 hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 1.0% decrease since 2000, and 2.88 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Pakistan’s annual loss of forest cover contributes to its ranking as the fifth most climate-vulnerable nation in the world, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. It is a well-established fact that forests absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby slowing down the rate of climate change. The country’s extreme vulnerability to forest fires is one of the causes of the loss of forest cover. Annually, millions of conifer trees in Azad Kashmir, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Murree, Balochistan and Islamabad’s Margalla Hills National Park succumb to forest fires which is one of the causes of the loss of forest cover.

What kind of trees are conifers? Conifer trees are evergreen and important for their resin and timber. They grow in low to high altitudes and have cones and needles in place of leaves. Deodar which is Pakistan’s national tree, Blue Pine and Chir Pine are all conifer trees. Another family of conifer trees, found in Balochistan, is Juniper and Chilghoza pine tree. The famous ornamental tree, Araucaria, is also coniferous.

All the conifer forests are highly vulnerable to fire from April until the advent of the monsoon which is call the ‘fire season’. The main reason is their needle-type leaves and the resin. The leaves of the conifer tree are needle-shaped to retain more water and help the tree to survive in winter. While resin is a sticky substance that oozes from pine trees, and when their bark is injured, it becomes highly flammable like petrol.

The haystack of needles of conifer trees that shed regularly is especially vulnerable to forests fires. The needles fall in immense quantities and take extremely long — about 560 days — to decompose. They are known as Chinbotel in the local language and have very little use now. Traditionally needles were used for roofing and as firewood, but now roofing in the hilly areas is done from concrete or galvanised iron sheets. And firewood is replaced by LPG or by the kerosene oil. Yearly removal of needle leaves can account for 300-350 truckloads per hectare. However, their lack of use makes needle leaves even a greater menace. It lies like a massive carpet, spread over several kilometers. All it takes is one spark and there is an inferno.

Although the shedding of the needles takes place throughout the year, the maximum shedding takes place in April, creating a huge pile. The needle leaves bed gets as thick as 24 centimeters if not cleared regularly. And when they are lighted, the fire can be huge. Also, the presence of resin — in extremely dry conditions — is like adding fuel to the fire.

The perception that forest fires are mostly man-made is wrong. It happens naturally too. Let me tell you how. In olden times when there were no match sticks, two hard stones would be used to produce a spark near dry needles and resin of conifer trees to ignite the fire. So, in the hot and dry season, falling stones and boulders produce fire on the bed of needles and bleeding resin from conifer trees.

Hot and dry season is a golden opportunity for timber mafia that cuts trees and sets the stumps on fire to destroy evidence of tree felling. This is always possible with the connivance of forest officials who are also involved in this nefarious trade. Forest fire is also a perfect opportunity for forest officials to overcome the shortcomings of tree inventory.

Sadly, now mountain dwellers living near forests have lost interest in the forests they have managed for generations. These dwellers are not allowed to take any timber from forests. Their right to use dry firewood in the forests has been taken away which is why their cooperation in case of forest fire is not available now.

How can an existing forest be turned into a fire-resistant forest? First, there is need to reduce surface fuels by clearing dead firewood every six months; chipping of dry branches of the trees periodically; and regularly clearing forest floor of needles in April and October.

However, here I want to share my personal experience. Not a forester though, I belong to a village located in the foothills of Patriata covered with an ancient forest of conifer trees dating back to the year 1885 in the times of the British Raj. My native village is located at the edge of the forest. In the year 1973, a massive fire broke out in a nearby forest. A German forester contributed to the creation of a fire-resistant forest by introducing an evergreen creeper that covered the forest floor and the tree trunk with side branches. The creeper lowers the air temperature and reduces CO2 emissions from all sources, besides helping to produce more oxygen. It, therefore, serves as a straightforward solution to resist fires.

Will the government opt for this low-cost solution or keep beating the drum all over the world about climate change vulnerability? I suggest the UN should send out one brief note on it.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2024.

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