Unusually hot and dry conditions have virtually transformed the wooded areas and grasslands of Himachal Pradesh into tinderboxes. The state is now struggling to curb the forest fires that are reducing its rich flora and fauna to ashes.
"Forest fires have flared up across the state, except in Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti districts, with the rise in mercury. So far more than 7,900 hectares of forest land has been gobbled up by the fires," Forest Minister J.P. Nadda told IANS.
Over 650 incidents of forest fires have been reported from Shimla, Solan, Sirmaur, Bilaspur, Mandi, Kangra, Hamirpur, Una and Mandi districts. Last year, the number of such incidents was 572.
"The next few weeks (till the onset of monsoon) will be crucial as more fires could break out due to the long dry spell and unprecedented hot weather," said Nadda.
According to the meteorological office here, the mean maximum and minimum this year was one to four degrees Celsius above average.
"The temperature this summer is almost four degrees higher than normal. Shimla recorded the hottest day of the season May 1 with the mercury touching 29 degrees, which is quite high," said Manmohan Singh, director of the met office here.
Nadda said almost 90 percent of the forest fires were the result of negligence by the villagers and the remaining 10 percent were cases of arson.
Principal Chief Conservator of Forest Vinay Tandon said: "We have set up 150 rapid response teams to control fires and in case the fire is caused by the villagers, we have directed our field staff that criminal cases be registered against them."
According to the forest department, 23 percent (8,267 sq km) of the total forest area in the state is fire prone. A majority of the fire incidents are reported from the highly flammable pine forests that cover over 1,500 sq km. During summer, the trees shed needles that are highly inflammable.
"This time also most of the fire cases have been reported from pine forests," said Tandon.
According to official records, 66 percent of the Himalayan state is under forest cover.
The lush green valleys and snow-capped mountains of the state are home to 36 percent of the country's species of birds. Of the 1,228 species that have been reported in India, 447 are in this state alone.
Similarly, 77 species of mammals -- from the spectacular snow leopard to the common Himalayan tahr, a type of wild goat -- have been recorded by the Himachal State Council for Science, Technology and Environment in its biodiversity report.
The storehouse of biodiversity also supports 3,120 species of flowering plants, including 187 species of medicinal plants.