Community involvement in forest fire prevention and control:

Lessons from Joint Forest Management (JFM)

(IFFN No. 26 - January 2002, p. 28-31)


Fire is a common feature in the Indian forests every year, causing incalculable damage to the forest wealth and ecosystem. High proportions of these fires are attributed to man-made reasons either deliberately or accidentally. Also the components of fires are very localised and the people who live in the locality know the local conditions best. Therefore, efforts to involve communities in fire prevention and control offer viable alternative to minimise the damage due to fire losses. This necessitates better understanding of the conditions under which community would participate in fire prevention and control.

The purpose of this article is to outline the lessons learnt from community-based approaches like Joint Forest Management (JFM) in fire prevention and control. It also argues that effective policy for fire management cannot rely on technological solutions only separate from the societal context. It suggests that fire management require a more balanced approach involving suitable technical practices that are simple, compatible as well as adaptable to local conditions and social arrangements and awareness campaigns.

Forest fires in India

In India forest fires are significant and one of the increasing contributory factors in the degradation of existing forest resources (Saigal 1999). Its is estimated that proportion of forest areas, prone to forest fires annually ranges from 33% in some of the states to over 90% in other (MOEF 1987). Although the data on forest fire loss is very sketchy and fragmented according to one estimate the total reported loss from the states of the union is around Rs 35 crores (US $ 7.3 million) annually (Bahuguna 1999).

Majorities of forest fires in India are mad-made and main causes of fire being:

The situation is further exacerbated by other contributory factors such as

Forest fires in the country are mostly experienced during summer months from April to June, though the extent and type varies from state to state, type of forest as well climatic conditions like prolonged spell of dry conditions or delay in arrival of monsoon etc.

Involving local communities in fire prevention and control

Over the years, there has been a significant decline in the prioritisation of fire management in the forest management objectives. With various social sectors competing for funds, the funding for the fire prevention and control has also gone down or has been diverted to schemes like ‘employment generation’ or even the establishment expenses of the forest department. In fact at present most of the states do not have any regular schemes/funds for prevention and control of forest fires (Singh 1997). With meagre human resource at its disposal (e.g. as per one of the estimates on an average 500 ha of forests have to be patrolled by one forest guard), the forest departments in most of the states are poorly equipped to prevent or control the spread of forest fires. This situation and the fact that forests are under tremendous pressure, due to increasing population pressure and hence commensurate demand of land, forest products etc necessitates exploration of alternatives to arrest this phenomenon. Attempts to elicit peoples’ participation in fire control offers hope of minimising the damage caused by fires. In this context Joint Forest Management (JFM) assumes an important role in fire prevention and control. JFM has been a significant development in the context of institutional arrangements pertaining to forest management in India. The effective involvement of local communities in evolving sustainable forest management systems was looked upon as an important approach to address the long-standing problems of deforestation and land degradation in India.

The National Forest Policy (1988) and Joint Forest Management (JFM) Guidelines (1990) of the Government of India acknowledged and endorsed this system of management, which supports the involvement of village communities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the regeneration, management and protection of degraded forests. The conducive environment created by these enabling legal and administrative measures is manifested in the fact that as many as 22 State Governments have issued directions to the respective State Forest Departments for adoption of JFM. At present about 36,130 forest protection committees are protecting about 10.25 million ha of forest area in the country (MOEF 1999). These committees operational in various states are assisting the forest department in forest protection (including fire prevention and control) and management, though the extent of participation and contribution to efforts varies.

A very definitive lesson and pre-requisite for community based approach to fire management, which emerges out of the JFM experience in forest protection, is that the for communities with stake in forests would be sufficiently motivated to prevent and control forest fires if their livelihood and subsistence needs are met. The JFM program is an example of a participatory approach in which people co-operate with forest department in forest protection in return for economic benefits.


Figure 1. Meeting of a Village Forest Committee (VFC) for fire prevention and control. Photo: C.Kumar

Lessons learnt from JFM

The JFM program in various states of the country has served to increase the stake of forest dependent communities in the surrounding forest areas. The lessons learnt from the experience of community involvement in fire prevention can be summarised as following:

Participatory approach in fire prevention and control

The community based fire management has to rely extremely on the positive relationship between the people in the rural space and their forest. Mutual confidence and public support has to be created by participatory approaches e.g. incentives, income generation activities, involvement in production enterprises etc. for involvement of communities in fire prevention and control (Goldammer 2000).

The study of fire in the JFM and non-JFM areas clearly reveal that despite similar kind of dependence on the forest people's response to forest fire differed. This was discerned particularly in the response of JFM villages where people felt duty bound to put out the fire in the forest because they have a stake in it. Remarks like 'the forest now belongs to us and we feel obliged to protect it' were common in JFM villages, whereas the non-JFM villages were non-enthusiastic about such voluntary efforts. Their efforts were mainly confined to check spread of forest fires to their agricultural fields.

Creating awareness among the community of loss due forest fires

People's view on the occurrence of forest fires is of vital importance in assessing the impact of community efforts at fire control. It is not surprising that socio-economic and cultural surveys on fire causes often reveal that most important reason for failure of prevention of forest fires is related to the fact that communities do not realise the economic and ecological losses due to forest fires. Therefore, an efficient motivation strategy for fire prevention requires an initial understanding of the cultural, socio-economic and psychological background of community perception of fire losses.

Within the village forest protection committees (VFCs) in JFM villages, interestingly it was observed that the assurance of economic incentives in the form of fuelwood, fodder or non timber forest produce etc. need not be the sole factor which motivated the communities to protect the forests from fire. What was more important was the level of community awareness of the potential losses that could result from forest fires. For instance basket making community in Haryana, whose livelihood is greatly dependent on availability of bamboo, have not only been active in preventing and controlling fire in their area, but also of the adjoining area to prevent its spread to their forests.

Equity in benefit sharing

This experience is related to aspect of causes of forest fires. It necessitates that the study of causes of fires should involve besides other causative factors, motives and behaviour of communities. Detailed information about the causes and through understanding of the motivation behind the forest fires provides the necessary background for prevention work. The job is then to reach and influence people to do or not to do something.

Equity in benefit sharing has been another factor, which was found to affect the community efforts to control forest fires. In the absence of an equitable distribution system of incentives, there were cases of the aggrieved group deliberately setting forest fires.

Complexity of legal provisions and lack of enforcement

Though the subject of law and its enforcement in relation to forest fires is a wide and complex subject and opinions may differ as to the part of it should play in prevention and control of forest fires in a democratic set-up. Generally speaking an adequate legal enactment accompanied by enforcement is an indispensable ingredient of forest fire prevention.

The experience of under reporting due to provision of lodging a First Incidence Report (FIR) with the local police by the Forest Guard on spotting a fire in his area and subsequent litigation reflects on the issue of re-consideration of reporting provisions. Also lack of voluntary participation despite provisions in the Indian Forest Act brings forth the issue of lack of enforcement mechanisms.

Clarity of rights and responsibilities of the communities

Clear specification of future benefits (in the form benefit sharing statement) that will accrue to the community at the time of the final harvest could bolster community efforts at fire protection.

It was found that some of the village forest committees (VFCs) besides putting out the fires in the forest areas where they have their rights also voluntarily put out fires in the Reserve Forest areas where they do not have any major rights. In the various meetings with these VFCs the issue of availing benefits from these forest also came up. Also apprehension of future benefits from timber sharing at the time of final harvest of forest crop protected by them was found to cause the decreased enthusiasm of village communities in fire protection and prevention.

Techniques of fire prevention

Formal training in fire prevention and control is invaluable for preparing a nucleus of people for leading fire prevention and control programs. This is because with untrained people the control of fire becomes difficult.

The usual method of fire fighting that is followed by using earth, by beating and by counter fighting. Usually all mild fires are extinguished by beating them out with broom made of cut branches and twigs. Counter firing is also adopted if the fire is so fierce that fire-fighting crew can not stand near the head to beat it out. However it is was observed that most of the villagers and even some forest staff were not adequately aware of employing these techniques.


The JFM experience across the states has clearly brought out that the community involvement can play an important role in minimising the damage caused by forest fires. The adage 'prevention is better than cure' is most apt to emphasise the role of village communities in fire prevention. However it needs to be emphasised that community participation in fire prevention is not an end in itself. Proper planning is imperative for fire prevention. This calls for the three general approaches to work in tandem i.e. Education, Engineering and Enforcement (Nair 1992). Motivation of community to participate in fire prevention and control should follow education to underscore its importance. An important strategy in fire prevention is to educate the villagers in the forest area and along its fringe regarding the care required to keep fires well under control if lit for legitimate purposes like for example, subjecting agricultural plots to a light burn as a pre-monsoon preparation. An education strategy must appreciate that a series of edicts will not work unless the villagers are convinced about the harmful effects of fire in context of their dependence on the forest resource. Also villagers believe most in what they see than what they hear. Taking groups of villagers to burnt areas and explaining the fire effects will be useful.

Hazard reduction or limiting the exposure of forests to fire risks constitutes mainly the engineering aspect (Brown and Davis 1973). This also included clearing along paths, early and control burning of vulnerable areas, fire lines etc.

Ensuring that the public abides by the rules and regulation set out for prevention of fires calls for effective enforcement of regulations.

Finally, while community participation is important, it needs to be further augmented with appropriate (a) pre-fire planning and fire prevention strategy like developing fire plans, fire maps, capacity building through training, pilot demonstration, (b) fire suppression mechanism, and (c) and if necessary post-fire rehabilitation and management.

IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Chetan Kumar, Research Associate
TERI, D S Block Habitat Place
Lodi Road, Delhi-3


Fax:                           ++91-11-4682144/4682145
Tel:                            ++91-11-4682100/4682111


Bahuguna, V. K. 1999. Forest fire prevention and control strategies in India. International Forest Fire News. 20, 5-9.

Brown, A. A., and K. P. Davis. 1973. Forest Fire: Control and Use. McGraw Hill, New York

Goldammer, J. G. 2000. Overview of fire and smoke management issues and options in Tropical Vegetation. The Global Fire Monitoring Center / Fire Globe Web site (11 January, 2000).

Ministry of Environment & Forests (MOEF). 1991. State of Forest Report, 1999 Government of India.

Nair, K. K. 1992. Prevention of Forest fires. National Seminar on Forest Fires Report, 1992. Session II.

Saigal, R. 1999. Modern forest fire control: The Indian experience. Unasylva 41, 167.

Singh, U. M. 1997. Fighting forest fires. Yojana, 41, 8. 63-72

Country Notes
IFFN No. 26