Millennium Post

Line of Fire

The forest fire in Uttrakhand especially the terai (foothills) has finally been contained. Though an annual feature, this year it attracted national attention due to its sheer enormity and media coverage.
The Uttarakhand forests, especially those in the foothills on the edge of the riverine grasslands, are most prone to forest fires as the summer onsets in the region. These fires are considered especially dangerous since the dry vegetation tends to quicken the fire’s spread over large areas. Additionally, there is a large presence of wild animals in the grasslands due to receding water bodies in the upper reaches. Forest fires in these areas thus pose a direct threat to the fauna.

According to government estimates, this year till May 1, a total of 2269.29 hectare area of land was gutted by forest fire. Forest fires usually start erupting around end of April but this year they started devouring the dry vegetation of the Himalayan foothills at least a we week earlier.

While the early onset of summer this year has added to the problems, for the past few years Uttarakhand has been also facing scanty winter rains and snowfall, crucial for the State’s ecosystem. For the Himalayan rivers which flow through the State’s thick forests and support the region’s rich flora and fauna, snow is the lifeline. Last winter it rained only towards the end of the season.

Despite the forest department’s claim that enough measures had been put in place for early detection and control of wild fire, with the temperature starting to move upwards, news of fire incidents started to pour in from across the State. There were incidents in Pauri, Uttarkashi, Nainital and Corbett National Park in addition to small fires in other sanctuaries. Around 40 hectares of forest burnt down by wildfires in Corbett and adjoining forests alone. Total fire incidents registered in Garhwal region this year is 603, in Kumaon region 318 and 161 in wildlife region, thus totaling to 1082 fire incidents in state this year.

The enormity of the fire this year was such that 40 master control rooms and 1,166 fire-extinguishers teams have been set-up in sensitive locations of the state for quick action. Nearly 14,000 villagers have been trained to put out the flames and conduct rescue operations. One team of SDRF and three teams of NDRF have been stationed at Nainital, Almora, Gauchar and Pauri. Nearly 500 personnel of fire department have been stationed at dangerous zones of both urban and remote areas as a precautionary measure to mitigate damage to forest wealth.

Incidentally, all the fire incidents reported from the State so far have been found to be manmade. In fact, most forest fires can be attributed to the presence of human habitats inside the jungles. With scanty winter rainfall and the early arrival of summer this year, the forest vegetation has turned extremely dry and a mere spark is enough to set off a blazing inferno. Since Van Gujjars (shepherds) are allowed their settlements inside the forests, barring of course the National Parks, chances of a fire breaking out are never too far.

Despite this overwhelming threat, forest department officials are left working overtime with outdated technology and battling legal handicaps to handle fire incidents. An eye-opening case study in this regard is that of the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary which, together with the Corbett National Park makes for the largest tiger reserve of the country.

However, unlike Corbett, Sonanadi has several human settlements. A standing example of the North Indian tropical forests, Sonanadi’s thick vegetation consists largely of Sal, Sheesham, Semal, Rohini, Aonla, Jamun and Bamboo trees, which are found in abundance here. During dry summer months their leaves turn highly inflammable.

Forest guards here have the dual responsibility of not only creating firelines to prevent the fire from spreading but also keeping an eye on the movement of shepherds who frequently dodge the officials to herd their buffaloes and sheep into prohibited areas and set off fires, howsoever unwittingly. 

Efforts are however on to devise new ways and means to curb the growing menace of annual fires.
Across the State, century-old forest roads built by timber contractors during the colonial period are today being used as forest firelines to stop fire with minimum damages. During the summer months these roads get covered with falling sal leaves. Left alone, the dry sal leaves can easily add to the already dry inflammable vegetation. However, an indigenously developed technique is helping forest guards fight fire. As per their methodology, the dry leaves are collected in the middle of the road and burnt down. While burning the leaves, caution is maintained that the fire does not spread to the vegetation on adjacent inclines. Once these leaves are burnt, the roads are cleared; these roads then act as a fireline, helping control fires coming uphill or going downhill.

Forest officials agree that the British era technology of 100-feet firelines, commonly known as Sau Phutia, is still the best means of checking forest fires. These firelines on high ridges are generally 100 feet wide and are cleared of all vegetation to stop the fire from spreading further. However, over the years, these fire lines have witnessed re-growth of massive trees and bushes. Some forest department officials blame the Supreme Court orders on the non-felling of trees for the rampant growth of vegetation along these firelines. “Other than customary clearing of the firelines, forest authorities have not even applied for obtaining permission from the Central government for managing these firelines in a better maner,” BBS Rawat, a retired senior Forest officer, said.

Rawat feels that lethargy on the part of the forest officials and the department’s inability to make good use of available human resources are important reasons for its failure to prevent fires. Forest department officials agree that there has been a delay in clearing the firelines as some officials misinterpreted the Supreme Court guidelines and became extra-cautious. “The SC did issue guidelines that compensatory aforestation was mandatory but it did not mention about not clearing the firelines,” an official said.

Forest department officials also point out that there is need to substantially alter the fire-fighting methods. “The traditional methods are okay but the government must equip the forest department with machinery which can quickly detect and control fire. Air surveillance and fire control methods using choppers should be introduced as early as possible,” pointed out a senior forest department official. This year using Indian Air Force choppers to douse raging flames through artificial rains came in handy.

As for addressing the issue of human culpability in these forest fires, there is some controversy regarding the relocation and rehabilitation of the Van Gujjars out of the sanctuaries. Their nomadic nature and camping activities often threaten the vegetation. There are also allegations about them working hand in glove with the timber mafia as burnt trees do get smuggled.

Whenever forest department officials have used force to stop their entry into the reserved areas the move has got embroiled in political controversies. Indeed, there is no denying the fact that force alone cannot be the way to relocate them. However, the government so far has failed to work out a rehabilitation plan for these forest dwellers and thus failed to contain the man-made forest fires.
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