Forest fires continue to be a challenge for the Northern state of Uttarakhand. In the month of April itself, in 790 fire incidents, around 1183.44 hectares of forest area has been affected.
On Monday, an MI-17 aircraft was reportedly deployed to douse a fire in Narender Nagar forest division of the state. Following a request by Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, Union Home Minister Amit Shah directed provision of two such aircraft and assistance of the National Disaster Response team (NDRF) to the state. One of the aircraft has been stationed at Kumon and another at Garhwal, while a 22-member NDRF team has managed to extinguish the fire in a forest of Nainital district.
Four people, including two forest personnel, have died in the fire accidents so far. Man Singh, a nodal officer (dealing with the forest fire) told NewsClick, “The department has deployed senior forest officers in the most vulnerable districts: Pauri Garhwal, Tehri Garhwal, Dehradun, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Nainital and Almora. Some 12,000 trained forest personnel have also been deployed across these forest areas."
The state has recorded 1,000 forest fires, damaging about 1,360 hectares of forest area, in just the past six months.
Scanty rainfall, which has rendered the weather and soil dry, is being considered as one of the reasons behind the fire incidents. Mid-May is expected to be the toughest period, as per the officials, with temperature soaring quite high. Strong winds can further exacerbate the problem.
Rajiv Bhartari, head of the forest force in Uttarakhand, said, "There is always a high possibility of forest fires in the dry season. We have had deficient rainfall during the monsoon and winters, which rendered air and earth dry and led to the increased incidence of fires. Besides all humanly efforts possible, we are also banking on rain and are keeping a tab on the weather forecast." As per the weather forecast, light rainfall is expected in Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Pithoragarh, Rudraprayag, Bageshwar, and Dehradun.
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In Uttarakhand, 24,303 sq, km which adds up to over 45% of the geographical area of the state, is under forest cover. Back in 2016, the state had recorded the highest number of fire incidents (2,074), causing damage to over 4,433 hectares of forest area. Sources say that sometimes locals’ activities can trigger the forest fires as they may not necessarily be mindful of the severe consequences. Forest fires not only destroy the habitat of a number of animals, but also affect the soil quality, its fertility, moisture, and growth of the trees.
Another reason being cited for the forest fires is the “massive expansion of chir pine trees”. The leaves of chir pine supposedly play a key role in spreading the fire around. The state generates nearly 2.3 million tonnes of pine needles annually. SK Chandola, former head of the forest force and a vegetation expert, explained, “Chir requires open spaces and sunlight to grow. Wherever infrastructure such as roads or human settlements requires removal of forest area, it provides ample sunlight and open space to chir to expand its base. Other broad-leaf species can not survive in such a habitat then.” Noted environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna had told this reporter a couple of years ago that no chir pine tree should be allowed to grow in the 500-metre area surrounding each village as “it depletes the groundwater”.
Chir, which is known for surviving in dry and hostile weather conditions, is favored by some as the profitable product, resin, is extracted from its trunk -- which has allegedly also led to a formation of a contractors’ lobby.
On the other hand, efforts are being made by the officials as well as the local communities to mitigate these adverse effects. The state forest department has been digging up trenches in the chir-dominated areas. Bhartari said that once the trenches are filled with rainwater, the moisture will help prevent occurrence of fires.
District administration of Bageshwar has also launched a flagship project called 'Ankuran', which aims at using infertile land to grow spices and fruit trees with the participation of village communities. IAS officer Ranjana, who’s been credited for this initiative, said, “It has become important to prevent chir pine from expanding over barren land in the villages by planting other trees which can provide spices, fruits and herbs, as chir plays a conducive role in spreading the forest fires, in restricting ground water recharge and hampering growth of fodder and other plants under it. The plantation drive at the district level would also contain migration from these villages."
She also told NewsClick that around 210 hectares of barren land spread over 17 villages in the district has been identified for the project. Devender Singh Nayal, former Gram Pradhan of Dadim Khola village in Almora, said, “In our village of 90 houses, people have learnt how to make fuel wood briquettes from chir pine leaves. Now we are also planning to sell them to some state government offices so that they use them instead of energy-consuming heaters to keep rooms warm in the winters.”
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The writer is a Chandigarh-based independent journalist.