Forest and Land Fire Prevention in Sri Lanka
(IFFN No. 20 - March 1999,p. 29-32)
Sri Lanka is a tropical island with a land area of 65.000 km2. Current population is estimated at 18 million and the population growth is around 1.1%. The economy is predominantly agriculture and the annual per capita income is around US$ 740.
The total area of natural closed-canopy forest in 1992 is estimated at 1.58 million hectares or 23.9% of the total land area. Sparse and open forests occupy a total of 463,842 ha or 7% of the land area while the total extent of well established forest plantations amounts to 72,340 ha or 1.1% of the land area. The current status of forest resources is given below.
Tab.1. Forest Resources of Sri Lanka
As a % of total land area
Sub- Montane forests
Lowland Rain Forests
Moist Monsoon Forests
Dry Monsoon Forests
Riverine Dry Forests
Source: Remote Sensing Unit, Forest Department, 1992
2. The Forest Fire Problem
The problem of forest fires in Sri Lanka can be summarized by examining weather conditions, fuel types in the forests, and human attitude in the area.
Sri Lankan climate is a monsoon climate, that is weather conditions are mainly determined by prevailing winds. There are two major monsoons; South-West monsoon prevails from April to July and North-East monsoon from September to January. SW monsoon is stronger than NW monsoon and lasts longer. During the south west monsoon rainfall concentrate on windward slopes of central highlands. So on the lee side winds arrive very dry.
The contrary is happening during the NE monsoon. But this monsoon is weak and shorter compared to the SW monsoon. Based on the rainfall the country is mainly divided in to two climatic zones; the Wet Zone where the annual rainfall ranging from 2500-5000 mm and the Dry Zone with the annual rainfall around 1000 mm . Though the rainfall figures are quite high, the distribution of rainfall is very poor especially in the dry zone. Much of the rainfall in the Dry Zone comes with the North-East monsoon during a three month period from October-December leaving 7-8 months of virtually dry period. This increases the fire hazard considerably.
The wind pattern and the topography create two marked fire seasons. A sort but important fire season from February to March in the wet zone and a longer fire season from June to September in the dry zone. In the central highlands only a short dry season prevails during the first three months of the year. But the risk of fire reaches its maximum due to the low humidity, and the topography of the area.
There is no significant fire hazard from existing vegetation of the country. Climax vegetation of the South and Central highlands is tropical rain forests and sub tropical montane forests. In the intermediate zone it is mainly an evergreen forests while in the dry zone it is a tropical semi deciduous forests. The land not occupied by the permanent agriculture is mainly covered with grasses such as Imperata cylindrica and Cymbonogon spp. Fuel load in this area is between 4-12 tons/ha. in dry weight. Mean height of the grasses is about 1 metre and ready to burn during the dry season.
Fire hazard is very high in forest plantations especially in Eucalyptus and Pine (Pinus spp.) plantations. Over the past 40 years 18,000 ha of pines and 19,000 ha of Eucalyptus have been planted. Besides being a pyrophytical species most of the pine plantations are situated in the steep slopes of central highlands. This situation creates a very high fire hazard.
The number of fires reported annually ranges from 50-200 depending on the prevailing weather conditions. Almost all fires are reported from forest plantations and the following table shows the forests fires reported during past 5-year period. The damage is estimated on the direct monitory value of the plantation at the time of fire.
Tab. 2. Forest fires reported during 1994-1998
Number of Fires Reported
Area Burnt (ha)
Estimated Damage (Rs)
Surface burnt by a single fire varies from 0.2 to 150 ha with the average of 10 ha. Nearly 2% of the newly planted areas are burnt annually. Most of the forest plantations are small in size and scattered over the country. Therefore, the risk is also scattered. However, the risk of a big fire is not very high due to the small size of plantations. Almost all fires are ground fires and crown fires are very rare.
Nearly 55% of all fires are reported from pine plantations while 20% is from eucalyptus plantations. Young plantations are more vulnerable compared to old plantations. Nearly 60% of all fires are reported from the plantations that are less than five years of age. Very few fires last longer than 24 hours and most are in the range of 3-10 hours.
3. Main Causes of Forest Fires
The agents causing natural forest fires such as dry thunderstorms or volcanic eruptions are not present in Sri Lanka. Therefore, all most all forest fires in Sri Lanka have a human origin carelessness seems to be the main cause of forest fires. Main causes reported are:
Throwing cigarette butts when travelling by train or walking through forests.
Burning of debris by workers who are maintaining highways and railway tracks without taking proper precautionary measures.
Burning dead grass in order to obtain fresh grass for cattle. These fires often spread out to the nearby forests.
Burning of degraded forests for shifting cultivation.
Setting fire to the forest by hunters to make animal go out.
4. Present Forest Policy
The new forest policy came in to effect from 1995 has the following three main policy objectives.
To conserve forests for posterity with particular regard to biodiversity, soils, water, and historical, cultural, religious and aesthetic values.
To increase the tree cover and productivity of the forests to meet the needs of present and future generations for forest products and services.
To enhance the contribution of forestry to the welfare of the rural population and strengthen the national economy with special attention paid to equity in economic development.
The policy on management of state forest resources (almost all natural forests and majority of forest plantations belong to state) further states the following.
All state forest resources will be brought under sustainable management both in terms of the continued existence of important ecosystems and the flow of forest products and services.
The natural forests will be allocated firstly for conservation, and secondly for multiple use production forestry.
Forest legislation is now being formulated to provide the legal provisions to implement the new policy. The present legislation has several provision with regard to the control of forest fires through law enforcement. Section 7 and section 20 of the Forest Ordinance forbids setting fire to any forest. Regulations made under section 7 further forbid the use of fire within a ¼ mile from a reserved forest except in accordance with the regulations. Section 67 of the Forest Ordinance stipulates that all persons who exercise any right in a reserved forest or are employed by the state are bound to report the occurrence of any fire and to help in extinguishing it. So, the present policy is no fires are allowed in the forest except in accordance with the regulations. Helping to prevent and to suppress the fire is compulsory for people connected with and in the vicinity of forests and for those who are employed by the state.
5. Organizational Setup
At present fire control activities are carried out by the Silviculture Division of the Forest Department. This division is headed by a Deputy Conservator of Forests and he is assisted by two Assistant Conservator of Forests at the head office level. In the field level, the Divisional Forest Officer is responsible for all fire management activities within the division. He is assisted by the Range Forest Officers and Beat Forest Officers. The Range Forest Officers and Beat Forest Officers are working very closely with the village community in controlling forest fires.
6. Fire Prevention
Management plans have been prepared for both natural forests and forest plantations based on the above mentioned policy guidelines. Each management plan contains a fire control working circle under which all fire control activities are listed. The main tasks to be performed are
Reduce fuel load through site preparation in case of new plantation establishment
Keeping the plantations weed free through frequent and rigorous weeding
Preparation of fire lines
Establishment of Forest User Groups(FUG) for the prevention of fire occurrences
Training of departmental personal, members of FUG and people living in the vicinity of forests on forest fire control
Promotion of agroforestry practices in forest plantations
Annual work plans are prepared incorporating these activities for both natural forests and forest plantations. Both peripheral and internal fire lines are used to prevent fire spread out to the forests. Peripheral fire lines are 10 meters wide in flat areas and 20 meters in slopes. Internal fire lines are used only in valuable forest areas where the fire risk is very high. Fire watchers are also employed during the fire season to patrol along the fire lines. Their duty is to detect fires and put off fires with the help of local people.
Training programs are also carried out to train the local level officers and villagers on fire fighting. Use of hand tools is the main emphasis of these training programs. These training programs consist of lectures and field demonstrations. During the fire season fire-warning signs are placed along the roads of most vulnerable areas.
Participation of local communities in forest fire prevention
Forest fire prevention has been the responsibility of Forest Department and Forest Department alone over the years. As the principal causes of fire damage are human related it is imperative the involvement of local communities in fire prevention. These communities, however, will not become involved in fire prevention activities unless they are getting some benefits. Considering these factors a new approach is being tested in pilot areas especially in Eucalyptus and teak plantations. Each management plan contains a "participatory management working circle" under which Forest User Groups have been formed. The following are the main features of this approach:
Local communities who are involved in fire prevention would allow to collect dead fire wood from the plantations free of charge
Forest Department would inform them the future forestry activities in the area, so that, they are aware of the future employment opportunities in their locality. Coordination of agricultural and forestry activities. This include
Finding out from villagers when they intend to burn their gardens or shifting cultivation areas, so that, appropriate measures can be taken to protect the plantations from fire
Permitting grazing and grass cutting without charge in plantations where there is a fire risk due to a build up of grassy vegetation
In addition regular fire control training would be provided to these communities. Once the trail period is over the most promising communities would be selected for formal participatory forest management programs. It is expected to implement a more efficient fire prevention program using the combination of direct involvement of Forest Department and community participation in fire prevention activities.
Deputy Conservator of Forests Forest Department, "Sampahthpaya" 82
Rajarnalwatta Road, Battaramulla
IFFN No. 20