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Battling forest fires in Uttarakhand

As managing fires proves to be a tough task in the state, experts call for proactive preparatory steps and traditional solutions

Battling forest fires in Uttarakhand

Forest fires have been raging in Uttarakhand since November but the situation worsened in April.

Seema Sachdeva

Chandigarh-based Chandra Devi and her husband Alam Singh Rana were looking forward to meeting their family in Gairsain town in Chamoli district this summer. However, their parents back home have advised them to wait for the fires in the wild to end. Earlier limited to the upper reaches of the mountains, the forest fires are now touching roads and highways, posing a danger to commuters, besides exposing them to the wildlife. Forest fires have been raging in Uttarakhand since November but the situation worsened in April. The prolonged dry spell in the region has aggravated the fires. Between May last year and April 22, as many as 150 fire alerts were reported. The state has been witness to 1,038 incidents since November. Five lives have been lost.

Uttarakhand has witnessed 1,038 forest fire incidents since November last year. PTI

Even as rising temperatures, low precipitation and low soil moisture levels are being cited as the reasons for early leaf litter of the inflammable chir pine trees this year — increasing the chances of fires — many locals call it negligence on the part of the Forest Department officials for not taking advance proactive measures.

In an official statement before the Supreme Court, the Uttarakhand government stated that all 398 fires were man- made. (Since chir pine needles that gather on forest floor don’t decay easily, often people set these afire to have more grazing area for animals). Ten officials of the Forest Department have been suspended for negligence. Even as fire services have been pressed into service and video reels of IAF helicopters spraying water using bambi buckets go viral, there are notes of dissent coming from various sections, who insist that only traditional measures that involved community participation can help check the incidence of forest fires in the state.

“Taking buckets of water in helicopters and throwing these to douse the flames may look very good in reels, but this is not the solution since the fires are not concentrated in small areas,” says Nainital-based environmentalist and historian Shekhar Pathak. “More than 25 per cent of the forested area in the state is dominated by the resin-filled chir pine trees, making these vulnerable to fires. Due to the tree conservation Act, these pine trees, which have a lot of commercial use as timber as well as for turpentine resin, cannot be cut above 1,000m. The chir pine trees are spreading to the nearby forests of chauri patti (broad leaf) trees like sal and oak.”

Van panchayats need to be revived

Forests are spread over lakhs of hectares. A few thousand forest guards cannot control the fire by themselves. Van panchayats, which earlier played a major role, need to be strengthened. Anil Prakash Joshi, Padma Bhushan environmentalist

Biodiversity at risk

  • Uttarakhand is home to at least 102 species of mammals, 70 reptiles, 19 amphibians and 124 species of fish.
  • Its 600 bird species make the state a bird watcher’s paradise.
  • Many endangered animals like musk deer, Himalayan tahr and western tragopan are found here. Himalayan monal, snow leopard and Asian black bear are among prominent species.
  • Besides 1,748 medicinal plants, there are 119 species of flowering plants that contribute to 31 per cent of floral diversity in the country. The flower diversity is evident in festivals like Phool Dei.

The long-leaved chir pine tree, scientifically known as pinus roxburghii, is native to the Himalayas and is responsible for most of its green cover. According to the International Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, about 4 lakh tonnes of resin-rich pine needles and twigs fall annually in the pine forests, adding to the inflammability of the forest floor due to a rise in ambient temperature during summer. The fires in Uttarakhand forests, thus, mostly remain confined to the surface, unlike the bush fires in Australia or the canopy fires in California, US.

“Traditionally, 10m to 15m fire lines were regularly scraped out at some distance in the forests. These gaps in the forest, which were cleared of any leaves or plant growth, helped to contain the fires. These were also filled with soil. In times of climate change, the situation has become even more critical. The Forest Department and the administration need to work in tandem with the locals, scientific institutions and NCC cadets to check the incidence of fire,” says Shekhar.

The collateral damage is the loss of biodiversity, says Ranikhet-based retired Prof Anil Kumar Joshi. “This is the season when birds lay eggs. With the fires engulfing entire forests, there will not be any seasonal birds this year.” He suggests that hundreds of MNREGA beneficiaries could easily be diverted to clear the forests of the dry leaves in the months preceding the fire season.

“I don’t remember any year since my childhood when there have been no fires in the hills. The Forest Department would like us to believe that these are set by the locals in the hope of better grazing areas or fodder options, which may be true some of the times. However, there are so many places in the hills where people are not allowed to go, but fires start there too, which could be due to natural causes,” says Prabhat Dabral, former Information Commissioner, based in the Kotdwar area near Lansdowne.

According to Padma Bhushan-awardee environmentalist Anil Prakash Joshi of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation, “It is immaterial what causes the fires. But the important thing is managing these. As soon as the fire intensifies, air gaps are formed. A high leaf litter cover of resin-filled inflammable chir pines can make the fire wild and uncontrollable. Forests are spread around lakhs of hectares. A few thousand forest guards cannot control the fires all by themselves. Support of the local communities and van panchayats is needed to control the fires.”

“About four to five decades back, there was a mechanism within villages that if there was a forest fire, residents of one village would go out to douse it using green-leaf brooms while those of another village would bring water and food. Managing fires was community responsibility. But since the coming of the National Forest Act, the control of the forests went into the hands of the Forest Department. With villagers not allowed to enter the reserve areas, they lost connect with forests,” says Anil Prakash.

He narrates a recent incident of Someshwar village in Almora where the locals refused to help the fire watchers in dousing a forest fire, saying it didn’t matter to them if the forests were burning.

Outmigration from villages to cities is also responsible for the increasing disconnect of the people with forests. An interim report of the Rural Development and Migration Prevention Commission, Uttarakhand, for 2018-2022 mentioned that 3.3 lakh people migrated from the state, the maximum being from Almora and Pauri districts.

The solution lies in creating viable economic incentives for villagers, says RC Sundriyal, a scientist at the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, Almora. “Traditional forest management will not work since people are no longer dependent on forests for fodder, fuel or leaf litter. Uttarakhand has close to 11,400 van panchayats and 15 per cent forest area is under these. These regulate grazing, cutting of branches and distribution of forest produce among the villagers. The van panchayats should plant species that provide direct income to the villagers. People will be bound to go to the forests to gather the produce if trees like walnut, tej patta, bael, amla, etc, are planted. This will also help stop outmigration to cities,” says Sundriyal.

Badri Dutt Kasniyal, who is based in Kasani village in Pithoragarh district, claims, “The Bum Dhaun forest near my village kept burning for three days. The entire 2-km jungle has been reduced to ashes. Till the time the fire was in the forest reserve area, villagers couldn’t do much. It was only after it reached Chami village that people could intervene. So many species of flora and fauna have been lost. It is tough for smaller animals and reptiles to survive these surface fires. Had the Forest Department made fire lines well in time, fires could have been easily contained.”

Pawan Joshi, who heads the Traders’ Association in Pithoragarh, mentions that business, especially tourism, has been badly affected, “Heli services remained suspended for two days. We are not even able to see the hills from here. There’s smoke and soot everywhere. Irritation in eyes, asthma and cough are the common medical issues most people are facing. No tourists would come to these hills which are full of smog.”

Pithoragarh, also known as mini-Kashmir, is the third-largest city of the Kumaon region. It is the starting point for treks to Milam Glacier and Darma valley. Other popular places nearby include Almora, Mukteshwar and Munsiyari.

It is essential for the land to remain moist so as to prevent any fire. Sharing an experiment he did in conservation recently, Anil Prakash Joshi says, “I live in Shuklapur village in Dehradun district. A small stream there had dried up. To treat it, we made water holes of 1 cubic metre in the entire catchment area. In 1 hectare, we made 300 water holes. Once the rains came and water reached the water holes, it helped fill the stream as well as raised the moisture level of the soil. Soon, many natural plant species started growing there. Birds and other reptiles inundated the area and an entire ecosystem was formed.” And, thus, begins another cycle of life.

‘Himalayan terrain making it tough’

Dhananjai Mohan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Head of Forest Force, Uttarakhand, on the difficulty in controlling forest fires...

Why is it taking so long to douse the surface fires in the forests?

The biggest challenge is the tough Himalayan terrain. Vehicles can’t reach there. Majority of fires are at places that can be only reached by foot. We have to trek 2-3 km on the face of the mountain. By the time we reach, the fire grows. It is nearly impossible to carry heavy equipment like fire tenders. That leaves us with limited options as far as the use of technology is concerned. Earlier, we employed brooms to make quick fire lines, but now we are using portable blowers to break the fires. The per unit area of the fire is very less but these are stretched over long expanses. So, throwing of water from helicopters in forests is not practical since the spread of the fire is not concentrated. Also, these can carry only a limited amount of weight.

Dhananjai Mohan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Head of Forest Force, Uttarakhand

How have the forest fires affected the flora and fauna in Uttarakhand?

Intermittent fires were happening earlier but these picked up big time in April due to the dry spell. Last year, we received 64 mm of rainfall, and this year it was only 6 mm, and that too in districts bordering Himachal, where there have been minimum fires. Though we try to keep an account of the loss of large animals, it is almost impossible to assess the loss of smaller animals. This year, we have not got any record of large animal death. Since these are ground fires, larger mammals and birds get time to fly, but small animals and reptiles are unable to survive.

Villagers are mostly indifferent to the fires in forests. Is this a systemic failure?

There has not been any major policy shift since 1988. We have 11,217 van panchayats covering about 4,300 sq km of area. The van panchayats are providing livelihood opportunities to villagers. However, since the lifestyle of people is changing, the connect with forests is weakening. Earlier, there was large dependence on forests and natural resources. Today, even in remote areas, people have started using LPG and other fuels.

Is there enough manpower to handle this?

We have engaged about 4,000 fire watchers, besides almost an equal number of our regular field staff. Temporary workers like daily-wagers, plantation workers, maalis, etc, have also been pressed into service. Every year, from February 15 to June 15, is our official fire season and we engage fire watchers.


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