These positive changes were more pronounced in districts with smaller areas of community-managed forests per capita. The difference across different areas of the country suggests that some districts are much better equipped in controlling fire incidence and its spread.
Districts including Arghakhanchi, Rupandehi, Sarlahi, Rautahat, Kapilvaustu, Bara, Parsa and Dailekh implemented stricter control on movement of people during the lockdown. Other than the absence of humans in the forests, high pre-monsoon rainfall this spring may have also dampened the number of fires.
Among developing countries, Nepal faces the recurring threat of forest fires that damage around 200,000 hectares every year. A majority of these fires are human-induced and occur during the dry season, mostly between March and May.
Between 2000 and 2019, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data shows that Nepal faced 47,000 unique wildfires averaging fire radiative power (FRP) of 29.88 megawatts.
These fires have been linked to deliberate burning by grazers and collectors of non-timber forest products, human negligence and accidents. Wildfires cause massive degradation and damage of physical infrastructure every year, affecting livelihoods of people all over Nepal.
Empirical estimates suggest that forest fires result in an annual economic loss of Rs5,000 per household, equivalent to 7.32% of the annual per capita GDP in Nepal.
This year has been different. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic led the government to enforce a week-long lockdown on 24 March, which was partially lifted for a month before being re-imposed in 44 of Nepal’s 77 districts.
A significant focus on precautionary measures over coronavirus during the nationwide lockdown raised questions about limited enforcement mechanisms among forest managers and a potential increase in illegal forest activities. This motivated researchers to periodically study fire data in the Himalayan region via the Aqua and Terra satellites available from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS).
India also saw a similar trend this year: high annual rainfall this year exceeding the 15-year average coincided with the reduced number of forest fires in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in the western Himalaya during the lockdown. This despite the fact that even in cases of high rainfall, the amount of moisture retained by the soil may still be the same compared to previous years.