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Forest fires: An inferno of apathy

Thats what forest fires look like

Eight-year-old Sudhanshu tries hard to fight back the tears. Next to him, his elder brother Priyanshu sits by the window looking out at the blue-black mountains. They say beyond the mountains lie more mountains. The boys saw the fire coming from way beyond there. Even at his age, Sudhanshu knows he must learn to live with the forest fires, an enemy that won't take defeat. On the afternoon of April 27, the two children lost their mother, 28-year-old Urmila Devi, to the forest fire that has ravaged the state of Uttarakhand, spreading beyond to Himachal Pradesh and even Jammu & Kashmir.

Urmila had gone down to check on her husband, who was trying to clear the grass and build fire-control lines on the slope of the mountain in Sauro village in Pauri Garhwal. That's when the fire leapt up, and now, the slopes are black and grey, much like most of the forests here. "It was around 3.30 pm when a ball of fire came towards us and exploded. That's what happens when the crown of the forest catches fire," Urmila's husband Digambar Kumar, 33, says. At some point, his wife's hand slipped from his. The smoke and the fumes blinded his vision. By the time he found her lying in the farms, her flesh had melted. She died at the burns ward at Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi a few days later. "I don't know who to blame except these murderous pine trees that grow on our land," he says. "We are harbouring death in our own backyards, but we can't even cut them." Over 6,000 people were eventually deployed to fight the forest fire, defeat it, or just save whatever they could. Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar says around 2,000 hectares was affected by the fires that began in February. The state government was ill-equipped to control it. The fire-control lines that the British had constructed-to segregate parts of the forest with barren stretches-work only in theory because they haven't been maintained properly. The black-grey mountains after the first spell of rains are a testimony to the scale of the tragedy. 

While the debate over whether the forest fires were natural or man-made rages on, the state government, in turmoil over the political crisis , didn't have enough will, resources or expertise to fight the fires. With one forest guard posted for about 80 sq km of forest, there were neither enough people nor enough funds to pay the firewatchers hired during the season. To make things worse, conservationists and activists allege that the fires are a direct byproduct of the activities of the mighty timber mafia, flouting norms and abusing the forest for their vested interests. Its true forest fires are getting more commonplace all over the country. The winters are not as cold as they were, the monsoon clouds not as pregnant with rain. You could blame it all on climate change, which is not one person's or one organisation's cross to bear, but there is a story of apathy, if not conspiracy, that runs through this entire tragedy. 

At least seven people died while the fires were ignored for weeks. It was only when images of smoke rising from dense forests went viral on social media that the state government was jolted into action. After over two months of trying to manage the crisis with the forest staff trying to douse the fire with spades and tree branches, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the air force were finally called in on April 29. Kumaon's district fire officer, Prajapati, says forest fires are not new to the region, but this year the temperature was at least five degrees higher than usual, so the moisture in the soil had dried up. Then the strong, dry winds started to fan the flames. "We thought we could control it. But things soon went out of control," he says.

On the ground, three NDRF teams marched inside the deep forests, spades in hand. They tried not to think about what could happen. Sometimes it would creep up on them while they had their back towards it. 

These wildfires engulf, char and destroy. The winds are their ally. They ride the trees. How do you defeat such a fire that spreads in seconds? You light a fire and let it meet the forest fire on the ground. You build fire-control lines. You beat at it with branches. And you pray for rain. "We walked into the forests for kilometres trying to build fire- control lines with no water or equipment. Yet, what are men to mountains? Nothing," says Indrajit Sharma of the NDRF, which deployed 135 men in Uttarakhand to help fight the fires. 

On May 1, the government decided to press two MI-17 helicopters into service as part of the operations. As some water fell on three NDRF men who had lost their way and got separated from the team, they laughed. "Five thousand litres of water in a jungle like this is like sprinkling a few drops over a sea of fire. You can't imitate the rains," said one of them, 29-year-old Yogesh Kumar. 

Fighting forest fires is not the mandate of the NDRF. Still, they built around 500 km of fire-control lines in 49 locations across three districts-Chamoli, Almora and Pauri-in four days. And they did it all without terrain-specific shoes and rationed drinking water (a litre a day per person per day in the jungles). 

On May 3, they went deeper into the forests, some 10 km. And then, it began to rain, quenching the flames and bringing succour. Although the NDRF teams are still stationed in the region (as part of pre-flood preparations), the ordeal had ended. There is no dearth of theories about what caused the fires . Some blame the timber mafia, some speak of how villagers had been setting fire to the forests to grow new grass as fodder for their cattle. "The fire came from the lands lying next to the villages which then spread to the jungles up in the hills. You can say pine needles are the reason, but they always fall during the season. Someone has to start the fire for the forests to burn like this," says G. Sonar, the forest conservator of Garhwal Circle. The Uttarakhand forests are also victims of the timber mafia. Locals allege that the wood traders cut more than 10 times the sanctioned number of trees, make deep incisions in trees for resin tapping, and set fire along the paths. "The resin catches fire and makes the tree burn longer. That's how the fire spreads," alleges J.P. Dabral, president of the Himalayan Chipko Foundation. 

A tree in these Himalayan forests costs about Rs 30,000, and Dabral says that there was another massive fire in 1996 at a time when the timber mafia was very active. The Bhimtal-based lepidopterist, Peter Smetacek, also believes the timber mafia is to blame. "It is for the timber, and the resin, and all that can be extracted from the forest," he says. But the fire assumed alarming proportions because of the rising temperatures and the lack of staff. There are only 1,600 personnel for about 2.64 million hectares of reserve forest, which, Sonar concedes, is "nothing". Every year, the state forest department and the van panchayats start preparing for the onset of forest fires by clearing up the old fire-control lines. No new fire-control lines have been built for years. The highly inflammable chir pine covers almost 20 per cent of the forests in the state, and the Himalayan forests are spread over inaccessible terrain, which adds to the challenge. Chir is widespread in Tehri, Pauri, Champawat, Almora, Bagheshwar and Pithoragarh. In 2015, the state government submitted a proposal for seeking clearance to cut the pine trees where they are in large numbers. "It is still awaiting the Supreme Court's nod," Sonar says. Under the Environment Protection Act (1986), felling pine trees above 1,000 m sea level has been banned. Though planting more pine trees was stopped in 2000, existing trees still can't be cut. 

The government has been trying to implement policies for pine needle management for years now. But it's not worked because wages offered are lower than even MNREGA rates. A coal briquette plant in Adwani in Pauri Garhwal shut down a few months after it was opened. Other plans to collect and utilise pine needles also met with a similar fate. Forest guard Prem Gairola, 59, lights a beedi as he talks about the 1996 forest fire in Chamoli, where he was injured. "Nobody wins in this war against Nature," he says.

Forest guard Rakesh Singh Rawat, 45, suffered bruises and a few burns as he tried to douse the fire on April 29 along with eight other State Forest Department Officials in Satpuli. 

The forest fires in Uttarakhand demonstrate how poorly prepared the state and other agencies are to combat this recurring disaster. For the villagers living next to the forests, the fear is understandable. Seventy-two-year-old Sahukar Singh is unlikely to forget the fire that raced towards his shop in Satpuli in Pauri Garhwal on April 30. His hands are burnt in parts, and the roofs of the tea stall are blackened with soot. Outside, the trees are black and grey. "Ever seen a fire flying through the air? In the last 40 years that I have been here, I have not seen a fire like this. My damages are over Rs 40,000," he says. "Who am I supposed to blame?" 

For starters, says Chipko Foundation's Dabral, who has worked in the region over 25 years, resin tapping needs to be banned. "It is not even a major source of revenue for the state government," he says, adding that plantations need to be monitored, and forest officials need to be held to account. "Forest fires may be a natural phenomenon, but human greed makes them a catastrophe," he says. From his terrace in the little hamlet of Bukhal, Puran Singh Negi could see the fire come rushing toward his house like a deluge. The 65-year-old says it looked like it was far off and beyond the hills in the morning. It took the fire just 10 hours to travel to their village, and when it arrived, it burned their orchards, and almost burned down his house. "Who is at fault but us?" he asks. "Why must we let things get out of hand? Let us cut these pine trees. Let us end the greed." There is hope, some firefighters say, from the bond that has been established between locals, state officials and agencies such as the NDRF in the process of fighting these fires. "At least we now have their trust," says NDRF director-general O.P. Singh. "I am waiting for our central team's report. We will research ways like chemical fogging that is used in some countries. We're also getting in touch with agencies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia because they are fire-prone countries. We need to study how they deal with the problem." 

But real change is only possible if the ecological balance is restored, and villagers are given a share in the forests they live in. "The hills are dense. Water sources need to be regenerated. We have to provide fodder to villagers. We are now considering providing 20 hectares of land for this so they don't set fire to the forests," says Sonar.

It's a long, hard road ahead. But it is a journey that's not impossible to traverse. "These are the forests that I love," says Sahukar, staring at the ominous grey-black hills. "I just hope we can see the flowers again." That is the enduring hope of everyone in the hills.
Forest fires: An inferno of apathy Forest fires: An inferno of apathy Reviewed by Shwetabh on 6:27:00 PM Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. This is very scary. Plus the mismanagement adds to the issue. It's always said respect the forest, and it will welcome you. Try to play with, and it will repel, strongly! And this seems to be coming true.