Fire in the Himalayan Foothills





This pair of images was taken in the same spot, a stand of chir pine in Sattal Basin, Kumaon, Uttarakhand State, India. The burned one was taken by our Wildlands Studies team at the beginning of May, 2016 and the second, lush one was taken by another Wildlands team at the end of September, 2016. Witness the effect of five months monsoon rainfall on fertile ash. The fires in May were, I was assured, worse than average. And they were bad. Visibility was limited to several hundred meters, stinging the eyes and scratching the throat. None of my students could use their solar panels, it was so smoky. Come fall, visibility was nearly unlimited, and leeches were back in the fresh grass.

Fire in Kumaon is mainly started by humans: we argue about the degree to which the ecosystem is actually fire-adapted. I believe, not much. Anyhow, it’s way different than California where fire suppression causes fuel loading and a catastrophic fire down the line. In Kumaon, fire suppression causes ecological succession to a less fire-prone habitat type. I attribute this to the coincidence of rainfall and warm temperatures in monsoon Asia, enabling bacteria and fungi to consume downed biomass over the course of the summer, unlike montane mediterranean type climates in western North America where the two things bacteria and fungi need to thrive — warmth and moisture — are seasonally offset leaving no time of year when dead plant material decomposes quickly.

I want to talk more about this sometime soon. For now, marvel at this forest’s ability to recover. Trees are fire scarred, but most seemingly unscathed.