Himachal fighting forest fires after prolonged dry spell
The prolonged dry spell this year has sparked off fires in the chir pine forests of the lower hills of Himachal Pradesh with 845 such incidents reported in April in Shimla, Solan, Mandi, Sirmaur, Bilaspur, Kangra and Hamirpur districts.
The raging fire, which causes extensive damage to flora and fauna, has the forest department on its toes. In the past two months, more than 8,455.2 hectares of forest land has been destroyed due to the fire.
Himachal Pradesh frequently witnesses forest fires during the dry weather as pines shed resinous needles that are inflammable. February recorded a rain deficit of 82% and March witnessed a deficit of 62%. “Two months have been dry, and the incidents of forest fires have increased as there is less moisture on the ground and temperatures have begun rising,” state forest minister Rakesh Pathania said.
“We have roped in the fire department but dousing the blaze in the remote areas, particularly those inaccessible by road, is a challenge. The forest department is trying to rope in local people,” he said.
Human negligence sparks off blaze
Forest officials say that most fire incidents are started by human negligence as it’s been noticed that they start in and around habitations. More than a dozen such incidents have been reported from areas surrounding Shimla so far this year. The smoke blanket has become a health hazard for residents and environmentalists have sought a solution to the recurring problem.
Sanjay Chauhan, a former mayor of Shimla, says, “One such fire is raging in the Junga Forest Range, 25km from Shimla. It’s visible from the Secretariat for the past four days but neither the forest department nor any other department has showed seriousness in dousing it. This forest adjoining Kufri wildlife sanctuary that surrounds Shimla is one of the biggest green covers and the catchment area for water sources of Koti and Brandi. The government should wake up and proactively protect forests.”
Replace chir pine with broadleafed trees
Environmentalists have suggested framing a forest composition policy and replacing the inflammable chir pine with broadleafed trees in the lower hills. “We see a similar scenario every other year but refuse to face the real issue of replacing the chir pine monocultures that are vulnerable to fire. Until there is policy and the chir is replaced, this problem will persist. It is not the responsibility of the forest department alone. Local communities are custodians living around forests,” says environmentalist Manshi Asher. She suggests creating forest protection committees that can take on this task with the support of the forest department.
Fire watchers to aerial surveys to check spread
Official data shows that 2018 was the worst year of forest fires with 2,469 incidents reported. It was the highest in eight years in which nearly 25,300 hectares of forest land in the state was burnt. In 2012-13, the second worst year, pine forests over 20,773 hectares were destroyed with a total of 1,798 fires reported.
The state forest department has drawn up a policy for converting the chir pine waste into combustible bricks. Besides, it has deployed 6,000 members of the forest staff as fire watchers for the timely dousing of flames. It now plans to conduct aerial surveys to take stock of the situation.