What is Causing Forest Fire? | WWF Malaysia

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What is Causing Forest Fire?

Forests in Southeast Asia are homes to iconic wildlife such as tiger, orang-utan, tapir, clouded leopard, gibbon, hornbills, rafflesia and many more. Forests are also important for water catchment, medicinal plants and carbon sequestration. According to FAO, Southeast Asia contains almost 15% of the world’s tropical forests and important for carbon balance. Indonesia has the largest tropical peatland in the world (69.61%).
 
Traditional slash and burn practice in wet tropical forests which is not accustomed to fire can alter the forest ecosystems and lead to social, economic and environmental losses. This practice is used due to it being cost-effective in removing rats, wood debris and grass. The traditional farmers also believe that the residue of ash from burning can increase the soil pH fertility.
 
Forest fires can occur at the surface or tree top. Surface fire burns leaf litter, dead branches and ground vegetation on the surface. Crown fire advances from top of one tree to another more or less independently of a surface fire. Forest fire behaviour is affected by weather, fuel characteristics and topography. Wind influences the direction of the fire spread, fire burns faster in warmer temperature and dry weather. Fuel like small branches burns faster than large logs, dry fuel burns faster than wet fuel, and dry fuel can be ignited more easily. Fire spreads faster uphill.
 
A fire requires 4 elements called fire tetrahedron:



Fire breaks are often performed to remove the fuel. Alternatively, retardant like foam was used to separate oxygen from the fire. Water can also be used to lower the heat by bringing the temperature of the fuel below the ignition point.
 
In a forest with open canopy, fuel and oxygen is aplenty; thus once burning starts, the chain reaction ensues.  Tropical peat swamp forests are more vulnerable to destruction by fire because the soil substrate itself is extremely flammable when dry. With the slightest wind, fire can spread to adjacent areas easily. As a result, fires get out of control. When this happens, firefighting is dangerous and often insufficient. These fires were often put out by the rain when the monsoon changes.
 
There are ongoing research and development to find better ways to suppress fire. Some innovations accessible online include Fire Fighting Robot Thermite T3.0, Kilburn’s Fire Extinguisher Ball and Sonic Fire Extinguishers. Most of these innovations are meant for small fires but perhaps the idea and method can be improved.

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