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The scourge of forest fires

The scourge of  forest fires

Picture for representational purpose only.



Himmat S Dhillon

IT had been a winter like no other in recent memory. There had not been even a drop of rain in the foothills and absolutely no snow in the middle hills. If one knew where to look in the distance through the haze, a sprinkling of snow was discernible on the high mountaintops north of Shimla. However, this was the perennial snow, on the other side of which lay the Tibetan plateau.

There had been a brief but passing cold spell in December. It had seemed to be the perfect run-up to snowfall. However, a white Christmas failed to materialise. By January, the temperatures were rising. February saw the advent of spring in all its glory. By March, the hillsides were tinder-dry.

Consequently, there was a difficult warm season marked by an acute water shortage and a plethora of forest fires. Each ridge and spur was delineated in a fiery spectrum of colours. That was so when the fire was at a distance. It was a very different situation when the fire was nearby.

One such fire took place late in the afternoon on a weekend. It was uncanny that my colleague and I reached the roadhead almost at the same time — he on his motorcycle and I on foot.

Before long, we had crossed Monkey Field and taken the steep path that led to the farthest point of the campus. The firefighters from disparate departments were on site. The water raced through the fire hose like a force of nature. There being no wind, the fire was vanquished almost even before it had been given a chance to ravage the dry hillside.

It was time to pack up and make the long, steep and arduous trek back to the very top of the ridge. Almost like a school team returning after securing a trophy, the tired souls walked home up the mountain path.

Well past midnight, a frantic call came — a raging fire below Esquire Hall. As I rushed out, there was an orange glow to the east. Reaching the Vindhya House pavement, I saw a chowkidar taking a stroll. I directed him to lead me to the scene of the fire. Even if one did not chance upon a white-lipped pit viper or a banded krait, the treacherous path in pitch darkness was far more dangerous than any creature of the forest.

The fire was raging uphill and had entered our campus on a slope below the boys’ dormitories. Only the greatest fortitude and the strongest resolution enabled the team to vanquish it.

The fire beaten, the chowkidar led me back without a word, past the steep ravine on a path that skirted the perimeter and back uphill towards home. By now, the moon had risen high. In its effulgence, I saw a neat compound adjoining the campus. As I paused to catch my breath and gazed upon the silvery scene, he continued to walk uphill. ‘A very nice place… who lives there?’ I wondered. Even as he answered softly, ‘Kabristan’, the light of his torch flickered and died, and the chowkidar ‘vanished’! I am still at a loss to explain what transpired that night.


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