The hills are on fire | india | Hindustan Times
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The hills are on fire

Forest fires, caused by scanty rainfall and an age-old farm practice, have reduced 4,000 hectares in Himachal and Uttarakhand to ashes. And hapless villagers have only buckets of water to fight the blaze, report Nihi Sharma, Archana Phull & Gaurav Bisht.

india Updated: May 10, 2009 02:05 IST

Chatar Singh Rawat, 65, a farmer in Rasaunlikhal village of Uttarakhand’s Tehri district, around 70 km from Dehradun, lives in fear. Massive forest fires have destroyed large tracts of the hillside a few hundred metres from his village. He is scared his village may not escape the next blaze.

“Forest fires have made life miserable for us over the past few weeks. There is at least one large or small fire in the area everyday, which we have to douse with buckets of water drawn from a nearby stream and sticks,” he said.

Rawat blamed scanty rainfall in the region for the spurt in forest fires in several parts of Garhwal and Kumaon in Uttarakhand and in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.

Till May 8, about 1,289 forest fires burnt 3,120 hectares — an area larger than Noida — to ashes in Uttarakhand alone, killing five persons and injuring 15. The fires also destroyed 371 hectares in three national parks that are major tourist attractions — Nanda Devi, Rajaji and Corbett. Fortunately, there have been no reports of animal deaths.

In Himachal, more than 1,000 hectares of hillside forests and farmland have been destroyed by such fires.

“Seventy-five per cent of forest fires originate in the farms. Villagers burn their fields and grasslands (called ghasnis) due to the belief that this rejuvenates and cleans the soil. Now that the temperature is high (average day temperatures are 39ºC) and relative humidity is zero per cent, the fire spreads easily to nearby forests,” Uttarakhand’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests R.B.S. Rawat told HT.

Three criminal cases have been registered under the Forest Act for causing fires intentionally in Nagiar, Swarghat and Rishikesh in Himachal’s Bilaspur district.

The forests in these two states are most susceptible to fires between April and June, when it is hot and dry. Areas with large concentrations of pine trees, which are highly inflammable, are particularly susceptible.

Over the years, incidents of forest fire and the areas affected have been growing. In 2006, about 5,000 hectares were affected; this grew rapidly to 6,000 hectares in 2007 and 7,500 hectares in 2008. This year, the area affected in the two states has crossed 4,000 hectares.

Himachal Forest Minister Jagat Prakash Nadda said: “Rapid response teams have been constituted in every forest range and divisional headquarters in the state to tackle these fires. We are also involving people and representatives of Panchyati Raj institutions to prevent and control these fires.”

Uttarakhand has state-of-the-art satellite-linked equipment to detect/control fires, but Himachal lags behind on this score. “Modern firefighting equipment is too costly for a state like Himachal,” said Pushpender Rana, Divisional Forest Officer, Bilaspur. This is the only district in Himachal that has a satellite detection system.