As Bandipur forest blaze finally dies down, activists question missing 'fire lines' and vacant posts

Bengaluru: Finally, the embers are dying out. The forest fire which raged through Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, spreading rapidly through the dry ranges, was contained after six days.

The fire primarily affected three ranges — Gopalaswamy Betta, Bandipur and Kundikere. Forest minister Satish Jarkiholi, who visited the Bandipur forest and inspected the affected area, stated that “2,000 hectares of forest were affected and burnt”. The unofficial estimate of the area damaged in the Bandipur forest fire is almost 7,000 hectares.

When the fire broke out, the state forest department was ill-prepared. Neither precautions nor emergency measures were taken, though it is fire season. As Bandipur is a dry forest, the wildfire wreaked havoc, and there weren't enough staff members to douse it.

It was left to volunteers, wildlife activists, firemen and locals to come together to contain the blaze. Only after four days did the government send two Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters to spray water and put out the fire.

 As Bandipur forest blaze finally dies down, activists question missing fire lines and vacant posts

Smoke arising from the Bandipur forest after a fire broke out there. Amrutha G/101Reporters

Asked about the delay in sending a request for assistance to the Indian Air Force (IAF), Punathi Sridhar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, said the decision to engage the IAF was taken at the chief minister's level.

"We have to pay money to engage the IAF, so the decision is taken at a higher level,'' says Sridhar.

Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy announced the decision to take the IAF's help on 25 February, five days after the fire started in Bandipur. By then, it had destroyed thousands of acres of forest.

According to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, fire lines play a key role in containing fires.
"Generally, fire lines are supposed to be ready by December-end. I came to know that there were no fire lines in some parts of Bandipur forest. We have to investigate,'' he said.

As part of preventive measures, the forest department has recruited more than 100 fire watchers, apart from 100 anti-poaching staff.

Nakul M Dev, wildlife activist, was at ground zero since the day it started, helping to put out the fire. “The Nagarhole fire was in a very small portion of the forest. Immediately, fire trucks and about 100 forest and fire personnel came to douse the fire. Forest watchers, too, reported the fire promptly. But in the case of Bandipur, basic fire lines were not in place. We need more fire watchers, but they are paid low wages. We also need to invest in better methods of dousing fires, like fire engines and pump blowers. The department should act as soon as we get the satellite warning for hotspots," said Dev.

Besides, Bandipur didn't have a dedicated park director when the fire broke out, which led to more chaos, and was also the reason why the Air Force came in so late, Dev added.

Another activist, who is volunteering in Bandipur and has been fighting to bring in change, claims, “A few officials are making money by creating fake bills and filling their pockets. To save money, they are not employing additional hands even during the fire season. We have lost almost 70 percent of Bandipur. This is complete negligence of officials.”

A senior IFS officer said Bandipur did not have a dedicated field director and a person who was holding two posts was stationed in Mysuru.

According to a source, “A field director for Bandipur was assigned only on Friday, that too after over two months.”

The forest department took the decision to fill the vacancy only after five days of continuous wildfire damage. T Balachandra, who was Conservator of Forests and Director for Rajiv Gandhi National Park, Hunsur, was posted as Conservator of Forests and Field Director, Project Tiger, Bandipur.

The notification about the posting of

The notification about the posting of T Balachandra as Conservator of Forests and Field Director, Project Tiger, Bandipur. Image: Amrutha G/101Reporters

After the fire was completely contained by Tuesday, Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy conducted an aerial survey on Wednesday to assess the damage.

Kannada film actor and social activist Chetan came down heavily on government's stepmotherly attitude towards the state's forest and tree cover. "Major political parties disregard environmental issues, taking Mother Nature for granted, since it is devoid of a vote bank. From the steel bridge flyover in Bengaluru to increasing the height of the Narmada Dam and displacing tribals, parties have consistently undermined ecological concerns for capitalistic and infrastructural advancement," he said.

He also listed five major reasons that led to the massive annihilation of the Bandipur forest.

-No fundamental fire lines: Fire lines are spaces in the forest where there is no vegetation or anything combustible, and they prevent the spread of forest fires. In Bandipur, long stretches of forest lacked such lines.

-Forest fire watchers: During summer, several individuals are employed to look out for forest fires. Unfortunately, corruption often takes over. Some officials pocket funds meant for fire watchers, fabricate bills and fail to hire watchers.

-Lack of improved technology: Due to financial mismanagement and lack of technological advancements, water tankers and pump blowers are not purchased and age-old machinery continues to be utilised.

-Satellite warnings overlooked: Several sources claim that satellite warnings and information sent by the Indian Forest Survey were not given due importance by forest officials. Officials only realised the gravity of the situation via media reports.

-No team captain: Bandipur lacked a specific field director. In fact, 112 out of 165 forest officers are stationed in Bengaluru.

"Let's hope the government and forest personnel will learn from this failure and ensure that such devastation is not repeated,“ Chetan said.

Another activist and naturalist who is disturbed by the situation says, “Proper precautions were not taken, or there weren't enough firemen or staff when the incident happened. Bandipur being a dry forest, the fire spread sooner, helped by the hilly terrain and high winds. This was tough for the few staffers to handle. It was much harder to convince locals to join us, though volunteers came rushing on seeing the news on television. It’s pure negligence by the forest department. People who are not allowed to enter the forest at night have done this on purpose, and strict action must be taken. Investigation must go on and the culprits punished. Proper staff strength and precautions are a must to avoid such fires. Officials who have concern for nature and animals must be in charge. It’s going to take years before Bandipur returns to life."

(The author is a Bengaluru - based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com)

Updated Date: Mar 01, 2019 19:20:59 IST