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Dousing flames in the hill state

Dousing flames in the hill state
On the evening of April 27, Digamber was startled by his mother’s panic-stricken voice at his home in Saru village of Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand. “There is a fire in our forest,” she screamed.

 Digamber and his wife, Urmila, came out of the house and saw the entire pine forest burning. Within minutes, the fire reached their hay stacks, kept since November last year for feeding their three cows. “We ran to save the hay stacks from the fire. I had asked Urmila not to go towards the fire but she did not listen. Seconds later, her clothes were in flames. I could do nothing to save her,” says Digamber, his voice almost inaudible.

Urmila was rushed to the district hospital at Pauri Garhwal where, looking at the seriousness of the burns, she was referred to the base hospital of the district. At the emergency ward of a base hospital, Digamber was told his wife had suffered nearly 90 percent burn injuries. A day later, he took Urmila to the Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi, where the doctors declared her dead.

Urmila is one of the seven people who have died so far in the Uttarakhand forest fires, which have been burning for more than 100 days. The fire that was first reported on February 2 has already engulfed all the 13 districts of the state. The worst-hit districts are Pauri, Nainital, Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Almora and Uttarkashi where forests neighbouring 1,500 villages are under fire. 

Forest fires are a regular feature at this time of the year in the state, but this year, say village residents, the trees are burning as if the apocalypse is near. Till May 7, over 1,828 incidents of forest fires in the state had affected 4,015 hectares (ha), of which 102 ha are plantations. State forest department puts the monetary loss at a little over of Rs 35 lakh.

Environmentalists say the real loss of the fires will be the damage done to the ecology, something that the forest department does not track. Uttarakhand forests are home to a significant population of insects and mammals such as tiger, sambar, muntjac, leopard, common langur and the yellow-throated marten. “This is the breeding season of birds. 

Thousands of birds’ eggs were destroyed in the fire. It is not possible to measure the loss of such diverse fauna, but for certain, some species of birds, insects, butterflies, could be wiped out from the jungles,” says Diwan Nagarkoti, an environmental educationist from Almora.

Bhawani Prakash Gupta, chief conservator of forest, Uttarakhand, says the forest department’s priority is “to save the forests and human habitation areas”. “As far as wildlife is concerned, the four-legged animals run towards habitation to escape the forest fire. Birds also find their safety spots. But for nests and other kinds of fauna, we have no method or policy to save them.” 

He adds that they have recently doubled the number of firefighters in the state to 6,000 on the direction of the state Governor. “A total of 11,773 people including firewatchers, forest department staff, police, NDRF (National Disaster Relief Force), fire officers and SDRF (State Disaster Relief Force) team were employed to douse the enormous forest fire that has nearly ravaged the state.” 

Two Indian Air Force choppers, each with a capacity of 3,000 litres of water, were also pressed into service in Garhwal and Kumaon regions. He adds that till May 4, the state had spent Rs 50 lakh on the water that the two choppers dropped.

But 61-year-old Kundan Singh, a resident of Hariyal village in Nainital district, says the state is wasting money because the firefighting teams “do not know how to control fires”. Despite having forest fires every year, Uttarakhand does not have a uniform plan. Each district decides its own fire plan on the basis of common guidelines stated by the department.

 The district fire plan is decided in a meeting held between December and February every year. The meeting is headed by the district magistrate and attended by state and district forest officials, police, fire officers and disaster management officers.

Forest officials say the guidelines are hardly ever met because of the paucity of funds. “Whether district-level fire plans work or not depends on funds. If there are insufficient funds, we are unable to put the plan into action,” says Prem Kumar, conservator of forests, North Kumaon. The budget is decided according to the fire plan.

 The funds are released in two parts: once in November-December for preparation, and then in April-May when forest fires peak in the state. The state government has released Rs 21.75 crore between April and May this year.

Officials say delays in the release of funds are a regular feature, which hampers fire-control. For example, a delay in the releasing of funds during November-December means a sufficient number of fire lines are not set up. Fire lines are wide clearings, ranging from 20 to 300 m, made in a forest to stop the spread of fire. Delays mean these lines are filled with dry leaves and twigs and as a result help in the spreading of fire.

While admitting to the delays, Gupta says it does not hamper the execution of the plan. “Yes, there is a delay in the release of funds from the government. But the department continues the work according to the plan. The payment is compensated later.”

 Gupta’s explanation has few takers. Environmentalists say firewatchers and forest guards often do not receive payment because of the delay—a reason village residents are not interested in getting involved in fire prevention activities. “Firewatchers receive a promotion when they near retirement, unlike other officials who are promoted regularly. Instead of hiring conservators, more forest guards and watchers should be employed,” says environmentalist Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who pioneered the Chipko movement in the 1970s.

In fact, environmentalists say that though forest fires are a natural process, acute ones are often triggered by people, intentionally or due to negligence. “Even a burning matchstick can start a forest fire. In Uttarakhand, illegal timber trade and intentional and negligent lighting of fire are major reasons for fires,” says Bhatt. 

He adds that village residents often set fire to the forest floor of pine needles to get a good cover of grass the next year and to get rid of the slippery chir pine needles. He also points out that village residents, fire officials and traders often burn forest portions and smuggle wood. Between April 27 and May 7, 2016, 49 police cases have been lodged throughout the state for intentionally lighting a forest fire. 

The weather also played its part in this year’s forest fire. The official forest fire season in the state is between February 15 and June 15 when the air is dry and warm. But this year, first forest fire incidents were registered on February 2. This year, Uttarakhand received scanty rains in December and January making it an abnormally warm winter.

 “Due to lack of rainfall in the winter months, there was no moisture in the air and soil, so the fires started early,” says P Soni, a senior forest ecologist and former head of the division of Ecology and Environment at the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun.

The state had been registering deficit rainfall since May 2015, but the forest department failed to act on the warning. Government data suggests that except for June, all the months between May 2015 and February 2016 registered defecit rainfall. In January 2016, Uttarakhand received just 5.4mm of rain instead of the expected 52.1mm. In February, there was just 29.2mm of rain against the expected 54.1mm.

“We have to understand that we cannot stop forest fires, but we can successfully control the fire so that it does not wreck havoc. What we are seeing today is the result of years of negligence on the part of the (forest) department and village residents,” says Soni.

Large-scale migration from Uttarakhand hills in the last decade is also responsible for the magnitude of forest fires this year. Arvind Bijalwan from the Indian Institute of Forest management, Bhopal, and Manmohan J R Dobriyal from Navsari Agricultural University, Gujarat, say that earlier village residents used to collect the litter, including inflammable chir pine needle and oak, for bedding purpose of their domestic animals. 

This used to reduce fire hazardous material in forest areas. It was also easier to douse fires as there were more people in the area, they say. But most hill districts in the state have seen a reduction in population growth rates. For example, Pauri Gawhal has witnessed a 136 percent decline in decadal population growth rates between 1991-2001 and 2001-2011.

Tree varieties in the forest aided the fire. The pine trees in the forests have resin and are highly flammable. Chir pine and banj oak trees dominate 24,240 sq km of forest in the state. Chir pine trees make up 16 percent of the state’s total forest area, according to Uttarakhand Forest Statistics 2012-13. Environmentalist Radha Bhatt says that the British promoted the tree because the wood could be used to make train berths.

 The trees are still a big revenue generator for the state. In 2016, Uttarakhand sold 16.5 million kg of resin in a nationwide auction and earned over Rs 90 crore, which is close to five times what the state has so far spent on forest fires.

Gupta says that his department has floated an idea of cutting down pine trees that are found at altitudes above 1,000 metres. The felling of tress at high altitudes was banned by the Centre in the 1980s. “We will approach the Supreme Court with our proposal once it is approved by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEF&CC),” says Gupta. Environmentalists, however, warn that the move will further damage the state’s ecology.

 “When India is fighting climate change, it is not wise to bring down thousands of chir pine trees. It is more advisable to introduce broad-leaved trees,” says Diwan Nagarkoti, an environmental educationist from Almora.

“Removal of pine will further degrade the ecological capacity of the forest to prevent loss of soil water,” says Niyati Naudiyal, a Ph.D. student working on forest fires at the department of natural resources, TERI University, New Delhi. Naudiyal says pine is a hardy tree variety that normally survives forest fires. So, she suggests, if the state effectively controls forest fires, other tree varieties will grow in due time.

(Views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth)
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