The air force flew three helicopters on Sunday to contain raging forest fires in Uttarakhand, which have gutted more than 2,300 hectares of lush Himalayan forestland over the past fortnight and claimed at least seven lives.
But one of the Mi-17 helicopters could not take off till afternoon because of a thick smoke over the Garhwal region. It managed seven sorties after 4pm.
The choppers for the Kumaon division were in action since 7am, collecting water from the Bhimtal lake and emptying the load over wildfires in Nainital and Almora districts.
The air support helped the field teams of firefighters from the state forest and fire departments, army, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), and village volunteers.
“The forest department hopes the fire will be brought under control in the next 2-3 days as the meteorological office has predicted rain,” additional chief secretary S Ramaswami said.
The joint effort has paid off, bringing down the number of blazes from 160 on Saturday to 112 on Sunday. The state reported 1,082 forest fires in the past two-and-a-half months.
But about 35 major fires in the popular tourist and pilgrim destinations of Rudraprayag, Pauri Garhwal, Chamoli, Almora, Nainital, and Dehradun hills remained a worry.
Strong winds, a prolonged dry spell, hazy conditions, and treacherous mountain slopes posed a serious challenge to the firefighters trying to stop the fires from spreading. Reports said the wildfire has already spread to neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.
The haze has brought down visibility and making breathing difficult. “The thick smoke is posing problems in the operation,” Garhwal division divisional forest officer Ramesh Chandra said.
People from villages within a licking distance of flames have been evacuated. But the worst sufferers are animals and nesting birds in Corbett tiger reserve, Rajaji tiger reserve and Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary, where about 550 hectares were reduced to ashes in this season’s forest fires.
In New Delhi, home minister Rajnath Singh reviewed the situation in Uttarakhand, which is under central rule since March 27.
Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar said the Centre was making all efforts to control the forest fires. “The government will study the reasons and prepare an action plan accordingly.”
Local environmentalist Vijay Jardhari of Tehri probably knows the reason. He said wildfires have become common because villagers and forest officials have discarded traditional preventive measures.
“There was a trend to make fire lines outside forests since the British-era. This is not done religiously now … which is why uncontrolled fire is becoming commonplace,” he explained.
A fire line is made by clearing waste such as tree leaves and other biological inflammable material from within a forest and its edge.
The fires generated political heat too as the Congress, which was ousted from power in the state, accused the BJP-led NDA government of doing little to check the crisis.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said the fire situation spiraled out of control because there is no state government to tackle it. He taunted environment minister Javadekar for conducting a “press conference in air-conditioned rooms in Delhi to douse fires in Uttarakhand”.
(With inputs from HTC in New Delhi)