Raging forest fires in Nainital district.(HT photo)
Raging forest fires in Nainital district.(HT photo)

Centre sends NDRF, choppers to douse raging forest fires in Uttarakhand

  • According to the forest department, since January 1, the state has reported 1,028 forest fire incidents in which 1,359 hectares of forest land has been damaged.
By Neeraj Santoshi, Dehradun
PUBLISHED ON APR 05, 2021 12:18 AM IST

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Sunday decided to deploy the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and choppers to control Uttarakhand's raging forest fires. Chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat has already directed the forest department to deploy all resources to control the fires which have wreaked havoc in six districts due to continuing dry conditions and hot weather.

According to the forest department, since January 1, the state has reported 1,028 forest fire incidents in which 1,359 hectares of forest land has been damaged. Currently, over 45 forest fires are raging in hill districts, which have damaged over 68 acres of forest land in the past 24 hours. The worst-affected districts include Pauri, Almora, Nainital, Pithoragarh and Tehri. In Nainital, even Oak forests, which have high water content and are comparatively resistant to forest fires, have been caught in raging fires.

This year till April 4, of 1,028 forest fire incidents, the maximum incidents of fires (254) have been reported in Pauri Garhwal, followed by 94 in Pithoragarh, 94 in Bageshwar, 91 in Nainital, 88 in Tehri, 71 in Uttarkashi and so on, data provided by the state forest department stated. Even plain districts like Haridwar and Uddam Singh (US) Nagar reported forest fires this year. Four people were killed in these fires this year, compared to one last year.

The officials said that this year's alarming forest fires are a grim reminder of 2016 when over 4,400 hectares of forests were damaged in fires during the summer months.

The official forest fire season starts in February and ends in June with the arrival of the monsoon.

Given the alarming forest fire situation, CM Rawat convened an emergency meeting of the senior officials on Sunday through videoconferencing and directed them to reduce the response time to forest fires.

Rawat also cancelled the leaves of all forest officials and directed the forest watchers to keep a tab on fire incidents. He directed officials to seek the help of van (forest) panchayats and local people in checking forest fires. He also ordered officials to chalk out a long-term plan to reduce forest fire incidents to a minimum and set up fire control rooms and fire stations at tehsil and block level.

Rawat spoke to home minister Amit Shah regarding the situation in the state. Shah told Rawat about the two choppers being sent by the Centre. While one chopper will be stationed at Gochar and draw water from Srinagar, the other one will be stationed at Haldwani and will draw water from Bhimtal lake for dousing the fires.

Also Read | 964 locations, 40 active spots: All you need to know about Uttarakhand forest fire

“I spoke with Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat and sought information about the forest fires in the state. The Central government has given orders to deploy NDRF teams and provide helicopters to the Uttarakhand government to control the forest fires,” the home minister tweeted on Sunday.

Man Singh, nodal officer for forest fires in the state forest department, said that this year there has been 65% less rainfall which, coupled with a rise in temperatures, led to a spike in forest fires. “We are taking many measures to contain the alarming situation. It seems that 2021 could be a repeat of 2016 when over 4,400 hectares of forest land was damaged in forest fires. We will make all possible efforts to reduce forest fires and seek the help of locals in this regard,” he said.

Rohit Thapliyal, scientist at Indian Meteorological Centre Dehradun, said this year Uttarakhand reported below normal rainfall. “The rainfall was below normal by around 30% in January, by around 50% in February and by around 70% in March. Besides, on many days the maximum daily temperature was above normal in the state, creating dry conditions - a cause for forest fires,” he said.

Why Uttarakhand reports so many forest fires

Uttarakhand has a rich forest area of over 38,000 sq km which constitutes 71% of the total geographical area of the state. More area under forests with neighbouring human habitations means more chances of forest fires. Given the diversity of forests in the state, Uttarakhand forests are prone to fires. About 0.17% of the total forest cover of the state comes under the extremely fire-prone category, 1.60% under very highly fire-prone, 9.32% under highly fire-prone, 21.66% under moderately fire-prone and 67.25% under less fire-prone category.

Forest fire activity is generally reported from February to June, with a peak in fire incidence in May and June. Three types of forest fires are reported in the state including ground fires, surface fire and crown fires. Besides man-made, other reasons for forest fires in the state include lightning, friction of falling rocks and monkeys accidentally throwing stones that create sparks leading to forest fires.

Over the years, many activists, experts and even courts have raised questions over the forests fires in the hill state. Last year, 172 hectares of jungles were affected by forest fires. The forest area affected due to fires in 2019 was 2,981 hectares. The corresponding figure was 4,480 hectares in 2018, 1,228 hectares in 2017, 4,433 hectares in 2016 and 701 hectares in 2015.

Hemant Gauniya, who had filed an RTI on forest fires in the state in the past, said despite spending so much money on fire control, large chunks of forests get damaged every year. “Why have we not able to come out with an effective mechanism to reduce these forest fires that damage so much of our biodiversity?” he question.

In May 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court, while taking suo moto cognisance of the forest fires in the state, directed the state government to submit the details of the forest fires, the kind of damage caused and what steps the government was taking to prevent them. The state government in its response informed the HC that 90% of the forest fires in the state were “man-made”. The HC remarked, “We were very shocked to hear the reply of the government. How is it possible when people have migrated from thousands of villages, they have a role in 90% of the forest fires in the state”.

In June 2019, a public interest litigation (PIL) on forest fires in Uttarakhand, filed in the Supreme Court by a Tehri Garhwal-based advocate, highlighted that forest fires were wiping out entire species of birds, small insects and animals. It said that carbon dioxide emitted from the fires was causing temperature rise in the hills resulting in a faster meltdown of glaciers, besides causing pollution and ecological imbalance.

The PIL sought urgent steps to be taken to protect/safeguard the forests, wildlife and birds from the forest fires in Uttarakhand and also ensure the right to a healthy environment.

According to forest experts, for forest fire incidents to occur, a fire triangle of air, temperature and fuel load is needed. If even one of the factors from this triangle is removed, then fire cases will automatically drop. As temperature and air can’t be controlled, the best strategy is to manage the fuel load. When the fuel load (pine needles) from the forest floor is removed, cases of forest fires can be reduced.

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