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Nature’s act or foul play? 5 burning questions on Uttarakhand fires

india Updated: May 02, 2016 19:21 IST
Anupam Trivedi
Anupam Trivedi
Hindustan Times
Uttarakhand

Around 2,300 hectares of forested land across 13 districts of Uttarakhand have already been gutted until now.(Arvind Moudgil/HT photo)

Uttarakhand’s forests began smouldering in February and turned into a full-fledged inferno as the temperature rose.

Though this is not the first time the state is battling forest fires, officials are concerned by the fact that 2,300 hectares of forested land across 13 districts have already been gutted until now – reportedly killing three people and taking a heavy toll on wildlife. The fires usually start in March and end in July, with the advent of the monsoon season.

The disaster has also affected the region’s overall environment, with local DELETE residents saying that the temperature is 3-4 degrees above normal. Many parts of the state have come under smog cover, causing respiratory problems among residents.

Hindustan Times sheds light on the most prominent questions being raised:

1) Where have the fire lines gone?

Fires usually occur when the vegetation in forested areas dries up. To control its spread, the British established ‘fire lines’ by removing dry vegetation along the boundaries of forest compartments (distinctly demarcated units of land) and then burning it in a controlled manner. However, sources say the administration hasn’t taken adequate steps to maintain these lines – which do not allow the fire to spread from one compartment to another – for nearly four decades. “The Uttar Pradesh government (before the creation of Uttarakhand on November 9,2000) curtailed funding for creating the fire lines way back in the 70s,” says retired IAS officer SS Pangti.

Read: Uttarakhand looks to rain gods for dousing raging forest fires

2) Are local residents setting forests on fire?

Setting forests on fire is a crime, but villagers do it to spur the growth of fresh vegetation. Nearly 45-50% of the forests in Uttarakhand are populated by pine trees. They shed pine needles, called perul in local parlance, which cover the ground and prevent new plants from growing. “Villagers tend to set dry grass on fire to allow new growth. However, such fires occasionally get out of control and spread through the forest,” says forest conservator (Garhwal division) G Sonar. Jagmohan Singh, a social activist from Pauri Garhwal, regularly asks villagers to refrain from setting dry vegetation on fire.

3) Can we blame it on natural causes?

Natural factors such as lightning strikes or friction caused by dry timber rubbing against each other can also lead to forest fires. But Ajoy Eric Lal, a Kumaon-based ecology expert, does not believe this is the reason for the raging inferno this year. “The very scale of the destruction is enough to show that humans are responsible,” he says.

Read: We are given away as fire offerings: Men fighting Uttarakhand inferno

4) How much has the weather contributed to the disaster?

Retired Army major VS Thapa, who has served in the state’s fire fighting unit, says hot weather and dry vegetation could turn out to be quite a potent combination as far as forest fires are concerned. According to him, tourists and trekkers add to this by littering forested areas with glass objects (such as bottles) that double as convex lens capable of igniting fires. “Glass is capable of concentrating the sun’s rays onto dry vegetation, causing it to burn,” says major Thapa. Besides this, the extended dry spell in the state has sucked the humidity out of the forest surface, making it highly inflammable.

4) How much has the weather contributed to the disaster?

Retired Army major VS Thapa, who served in the state’s fire fighting unit, says hot weather and dry vegetation are a potent combination for forest fires are concerned. According to him, tourists and trekkers dump glass objects such as bottles in forested areas. “Glass is capable of concentrating the sun’s rays onto dry vegetation, causing it to burn,” says Major Thapa. The extended dry spell in the state has sucked the humidity out of the forest surface, making it highly inflammable.

5) Is the timber mafia responsible?

This is the most prominent question being posed by environmentalists. Uttarakhand’s forests – populated by commercially-viable trees such as the evergreen oak, conifer, sal and acacia – have always been eyed by the timber mafia. But how does starting forest fires benefit them? “In case of pine trees, only the first few metres of a tree usually get burnt and the timber above remains useful,” says Ajoy. “Members of the timber mafia later collect this wood on the pretense of cleaning the area.”

Village children also light fires because rising temperature causes pine trees to produce more resin – which they collect and sell in the market.