As the government scrambles to douse raging forest fires, social media users and Uttarakhand residents are debating the causes of the blaze that has reportedly devoured 1900 hectares of forest land and claimed five lives.
A Facebook post by Ela Smetacek, which has been shared more than 42 thousand times, claims that forest fires are often “orchestrated by timber and land mafia”, who fell the dead trees to sell wood.
“Every year, a few villagers stoke fires and cut the burnt trees to sell wood in the black market,” said Smetacek, whose family owns a 350-acre forest reserve called Jones Estate in Bhimtal.
Rahul Sharma, an eye-witness and a bird-watcher who often travels to Uttarakhand, said most fires are man-made as villagers have started burning crops to clear large tracts of land.
While Sharma ruled out the possibility of land mafia, he said he has seen some half-cut trees burnt out after the fire that “indicates” illegal felling.
However, reports said the lack of pre-monsoon showers could have contributed to the forest fire.
Shatrughna Singh, chief secretary of Uttarakhand, told PTI the state government wanted to declare five districts as “drought-hit”.
“Hill districts in the grip of a drought are Almore, Pithoragarh, Nainital, Rudrapur and Pauri,” Singh said on Thursday.
The hill state is notorious for pre-monsoon forest fires and natural phenomena too can ignite dry leaves in the parched weather.
The chief conservator of forest BP Gupta said forests in the state will regenerate once the fire season ends.
“Mostly we have ground fires and therefore, forest are able to regenerate soon,” he claimed.
Brij Bisht, an environmentalist who lives in Rudraprayag, said more than 99% of forest fires in the hills are not due to natural causes. He said locals light fires to clear patches of land to enable grass to grow.
Video: Uttarakhand forest fire
It’s a common practice because Pine trees, which are prevalent in hilly regions of Uttarakhand and are not indigenous plants, inhibit growth of different vegetation around them, Bisht said.
He ruled out less rainfall as the cause of fires. Bisht said such forest fires occur every year. “It’s this year that the fire has spread to a large area.”
Bisht said the best way to stop these practices is to involve the local population.
“For example, if the government announces that it will give a cash reward of Rs 1 lakh to every village if there’s no forest fire every year, people would ensure such fires don’t break out.”