Long dry conditions, wind and the heatwave have notched up the risk of forest fires these days in low and mid-hills of Himachal Pradesh. The state forest department is, for the first time, monitoring the situation via satellites.
Forest Minister Thakur Singh Bharmouri believes fire is a natural phenomenon in many forests, particularly in the pine grooves, but when the fires get out of control they can gobble up huge tracts. For him, better forest management could mitigate the damage to the flora and fauna.
The satellite tracking system through the ISRO facility has been set up for the first time to check the forest fire incidents, Bharmouri told IANS.
He said continuous vigil is being kept on the forests from being engulfed in flames. Simultaneously, officials down the line, up to forest guards, would receive SMS on their mobiles in case of a fire.
The forest minister said till now there has been no major forest fire, though a few incidents have been reported from the forests of Kangra district, where the flames were soon controlled.
Like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, this hill state has also adopted a technology-based forest fire alert system which issues warning signals on the basis of data disseminated through Hyderabad's National Remote Sensing Centre.
Forest department estimates say 22 percent or 8,267 sq km of the total forest area in the state is fire-prone. A majority of the fires are reported from the pine forests as during summer the trees shed their needles, which are highly inflammable.
The pine forests are found up to an altitude of 5,500 feet.
Forest officials said most fire incidents are deliberate acts. The local villagers also tend to set grasslands afire to get softer grass after the rains. In most cases, the fire from grasslands spreads to nearby forests.
Bharmouri said 693 participatory committees have been constituted in fire-prone districts - mainly Bilaspur, Una, Hamirpur, Kangra, Sirmaur, Solan, Mandi and Shimla - and the emphasis is on educating them.
"There is a provision of cash incentives to motivate the committees to initiate steps to control natural fires. In the last fiscal, the forest department gave Rs.24 lakh as award money to 306 committees," he said.
Earlier, Rs.5,000 was given as an award to each committee and this has been enhanced to Rs.10,000 per committee.
A total of 103 watchtowers have been set up so that the people could easily detect fire incidents. For extinguishing the fire, 86 water tanks have been constructed in the forests. The local people have been involved in detecting fire incidents and have been employed on a daily basis.
A mobile phone allowance is being given to the forest guards during the summer season to facilitate their reporting fire incidents.
Forest wealth estimated at over Rs.2 crore spread over 11,814.89 hectares has been destroyed in forest fires from January 2013 to February this year, a senior forest official told IANS, adding that harvesting of pine needles would greatly help checking forest fires.
On an average, a pine forest yields two to three tonnes of needles per hectare during a season. The state's pine forests are spread over 1,500 sq km.
The inflammable needles are being used as bio-fuel by Gujarat Ambuja Cements at its plant in the state.
The locals collect the needles and sell them at around Rs.1.65 per kg to the company.