Fires up in the hills during the scorching summer are not unusual. What is surprising, however, is how ill prepared the Uttarakhand administration was this year, given that the fires have been raging for over 88 days. The political uncertainty that has gripped the state since mid-March seems to have contributed to the situation.
The politics over the fire has started with the Congress blaming the BJP-ruled Centre for the fire spreading so fast in eight districts of the state and the BJP hitting back at ousted chief minister Harish Rawat for failing to prepare for the fire.
The forest department failed to implement the British era rule of creating fire lines in forests to check its spread. As the forest fire in the hills spreads, the ground is dug up to halt its advance. Since the late 1970s, when the UP government withdrew funds for digging forest lines, this practice has fallen by the wayside. Another effective fire fighting measure is identifying nearby water sources. This was not done. There was also not enough staff on the ground to check the spread of the fire and it appears that the forest department was caught off guard by the spurt in fire incidents in mid-April.
Normally, the forest fires are most severe in May. Now that the heat is really on, the strategy should be to minimise the losses. The fire has destroyed 2,500 hectares of forest land in 13 districts besides claiming three lives. It has scorched wildlife habitats, in the country’s premier locations for tigers and elephants — Corbett National Park and Rajaji National Park. The fire has also wrecked the nesting season for birds and the smoke has caused migratory birds to stay away from their usual destinations in the state.
The unrelenting fire is a huge setback to the local ecology and to the state’s economy, which is dependent on tourism. May-June is the peak tourist season for Uttarakhand because of the chardham yatra and people visiting the state to escape the heat wave in the plains. But, the last few days have witnessed 30-40% cancellations in the hotel industry.
Although over 6,000 personnel, including three teams of National Disaster Management Authority and two Air Force choppers, are being used, vast areas of forest in the drought-hit districts are still ablaze. What could have been contained had the administration acted in time has become a raging, and seemingly uncontrollable inferno.