New Delhi: A prolonged dry spell and abnormally high temperatures have set off alarm bells for forest departments in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand over forest fires causing huge damage to flora and fauna. This is an annual story in the hills, with the authorities seeming helpless as the fires rage.
Forest fires in Uttarakhand have been wreaking havoc for over a week now with multiple fires reported from the Tehri forest range. According to sources, fires have also been seen in mountains in Almora, Peora, Surya Gaon, Sattal and Kausani.
As per a report in Times of India, at least 32 cases of wildfires have been reported from Uttarakhand state capital Dehradun in the past 11 days. The report states that at least 189.25 hectares of forest area was gutted in Almora by 76 fire incidents. At the same time, 168.28 hectares of forests were reduced to ashes in Nainital in 170 cases of wildfire incidents.
Forest officials say deficient rains and increase in temperatures are to be blamed for rising incidents of wildfires. Reportedly, at least six people have died and four others were injured in fire incidents till May 8.
Meanwhile, environmentalists in the state have blamed humans for wildfire incidents.
“Wildfires in the Western Himalayan region are almost entirely man-made. Villagers and forest officials set land on fire to burn agricultural residue and for controlled burning of pine needles to encourage grass and fodder growth. The real problem arrives when such fires get out of hand,” the report quoted Vishal Singh, executive director, Dehradun-based Centre for Ecology Development and Research.
According to a report in National Herald, Uttarakhand’s forest minister Harak Singh Rawat has criticised Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat for sending the three top forest officials on a Europe tour.
Allegedly, Harak Singh, in a letter to the Department of Personnel, has stated that "no due permission" was taken from him for the foreign tour of the three officials and that "no such permission" should be granted to any officer without his prior approval. His letter came after the Congress had attacked the state government.
In Himachal Pradesh, even though no major forest fires have been reported so far, smoke from fires has started blanketing the skyline of the state capital these days along with the hills around Kasauli, Chail, Dharampur, Bilaspur, Kangra, Hamirpur, Dharamshala and Palampur towns.
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Ajay Sharma has said that they have identified 23 fire-sensitive forest divisions across the state where a team of at least four Home Guard personnel have been deployed to monitor and control forest fires till June 30. He has also said that Home Guard jawans, who are trained by the state Disaster Management Authority and provided with fire-resistance kits, including special uniforms, are part of a dedicated Quick Response Team Task Force, which is formed to extinguish forest fires, in addition to forest staff, according to an IANS report.
As per records of the forest department, 22% or 8,267 sq km of the total forest area, particularly in the mid and low hills, are fire-prone. A majority of the fires were reported from pine forests since, during summer, the trees shed pine needles that are highly inflammable for their rich content of turpentine oil. There are 196 forest ranges in the state, of which 80 are most sensitive and fire- prone.
Experts say there is technology to handle the pine needles by converting them into combustible bricks. The state budget for this fiscal has a provision to establish 25 pine needle-based units in a bid to not only help prevent pine forest fires, but also provide employment opportunities to local people.
According to the India Meteorological Department, the maximum temperature in some parts of Himachal Pradesh is three to six degrees above average these days. Shimla recorded the season's hottest day on Friday with maximum temperature at 30.2 degrees Celsius, five notches above the average.
In addition, forest officials in HP also maintain that most fire incidents are started by human beings. For instance, the local villagers tend to set grasslands afire to get softer grass after the rains. In most cases, the fire from grasslands spreads to nearby forests. Human recklessness mixed with soaring temperatures make for a lethal concoction which destroys massive biodiversity in these states, they said.
Official figures show 2018 was the worst year with 2,469 fire incidents reported- the highest in eight years- that gobbled up 25,300 hectares of forest across the state.