Recent forest fires in Uttarakhand destroy huge swathes of green cover; experts blame errant monsoon

The hilly state of Uttarakhand recently witnessed a massive wildfire which has taken over more than 900 hectares of forest. Incidents of fire have been reported from all 13 districts of Uttarakhand, the worst affected districts being Nainital and Almora. In both these districts, the forests are largely comprised of oak and pine trees. The pine trees, also known as the ‘chir’ are highly inflammable and cover more than 16 percent of the state’s forest cover.

Rainfall and a hailstorm on Wednesday afternoon brought some relief and has mitigated the fire to some extent, said Mamta Chand, range officer of Nainital forest division.

Recently, two large active forest fires were reported in Tehri Garhwal and Pauri Garhwal districts of the state. The number of forest fire alerts reported since 9 May by satellite imagery, is 2,460, as recorded by the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership Satellite (SNPP), and 231 as recorded through the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro-Radiometer (MODIS). The SNPP is capable of mapping small fires and achieving better accuracy of the location as compared to the MODIS.

Parag M Dhakate, Conservator of Forest (Western Circle) of Kumaon division said, “With the help of satellites, we can now locate the pinpoint location. Earlier it was really difficult, but with newer technology, we are now able to reach the exact location in quicker time.”

 Recent forest fires in Uttarakhand destroy huge swathes of green cover; experts blame errant monsoon

A forest fire in Nainital in Uttarakhand. Ankita Virmani

The raging fires have caused untold damage and devastated acres of green cover in the hills. The villagers living close to the forest light fires in the traditional way so that with the first rains, new patches of nutritious grass appear. Dry weather, high temperatures and lack of rainfall have caused the fires to spread, making it extremely difficult for authorities to contain them.

GP Sharma, president of metrology at Skymet Weather said, “The region has faced a deficiency in rainfall from the last year — including last year’s post-monsoon period, the winter, and this pre-monsoon season. This has resulted in plenty of dryness. While some rainfall took place, it was not enough to extinguish the fire. Extinguishing wildfire is a very tedious task. Only preparation and vigilance can help.”

Speaking on the current situation, Jai Raj, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (HoFF) said, “The situation is under control now. The fire was because of anthropogenic reasons, and due to negligence. At times, carelessly and unintentionally, people throw a lit cigarette or ‘beedi’ on the ground. Sometimes, villagers living close to the forest intentionally burn their waste or stubble. The forest department, the fire department, police and SDRF are all working in coordination to mitigate the fire. We are witnessing a new trend in which the locals are helping the department.”

Wildlife reserves across the state have also been affected by the fire. On Monday afternoon, the fire spread till the famous Corbett National Park. The Bijrani and Manda ranges of the park have lost a huge amount of green cover to the fire.

Prasana Kumar Patro, Field Director at Rajaji Tiger Reserve, said, “The Haridwar range, particularly the Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi area and the Luni beat of Pauri district, both of which fall under the Rajaji Tiger Reserve are the most affected. An initial assessment has revealed that 32 hectares of forest have been largely impacted. The situation is under control now, though we are still waiting for the rain to douse the fire completely.”

Every year, Uttarakhand loses a large part of its forest cover to fires, mostly during this time of the year when the mercury soars. Very recently, an RTI reply from the department revealed that more than 44,000 hectares of forest, which is roughly equivalent to 61,000 football fields, have been destroyed ever since the formation of state in the year 2000.

Though the exact damage is yet to be assessed, the forest department has estimated a loss of more than Rs 17 lakh in the recent fire. From the time the state was carved out of Uttar Pradesh, it has faced a total loss of over Rs 15 million.

This is the extent of the loss that can be calculated. The rest is abstract — the pollution levels, the impact on air quality, the damage to rivers and glaciers, the number of birds, insects, etc.

A gigantic forest fire was also reported in 2016. The question to ask is — why do we not learn from the past? Anup Shah, an activist and a member of the state wildlife advisory board, said, “The forest department is least prepared to tackle incidents like this. Neither do they have proper equipment nor proper clothes and boots. A daily wage labourer I met on a spot was wearing nylon pants. The fire in the ‘Sheetala Khet' area of Almora district occurred because a villager close by was burning the waste. There is no monitoring, and no awareness.”

Speaking of the air quality, Sharma said, “It surely will impact the air quality. The only good thing is that winds are in our favour. A fairly good amount of flow is there, so the smoke will not be stagnant. But in the last few days, the air quality has deteriorated.”

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Updated Date: May 18, 2019 14:53:14 IST