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Karnataka scrambles to contain wildfire in Bandipur forest

The Karnataka government sought help from the Indian Air Force on Monday as it raced to contain fires raging in Bandipur forests, home to one of the country’s most popular tiger habitat and where an estimated 3,000 hectares of land is estimated to have been burnt down over the last five days.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2019 08:04 IST

Hindustan Times, Bengaluru
Rescue officials assist in extinguishing a forest fire at Bandipur Tiger Reserve, in Bandipur, Sunday, Feb 24, 2019.
Rescue officials assist in extinguishing a forest fire at Bandipur Tiger Reserve, in Bandipur, Sunday, Feb 24, 2019. (PTI file photo)
         

The Karnataka government sought help from the Indian Air Force on Monday as it raced to contain fires raging in Bandipur forests, home to one of the country’s most popular tiger habitat and where an estimated 3,000 hectares of land is estimated to have been burnt down over the last five days.

An estimated 1,000 people — 300 local villagers and at least 500 state forest staff — too joined in fire-fighting efforts even as dry, windy conditions continued to fan the flames and officials grappled with a lack of local sources of water.

“Decided to use Air Force’s help to contain the fire. The Air Force chief was contacted and a request was placed for immediate help. The Air Force Chief responded positively and preparations are on for operation,” chief minister HD Kumaraswamy said in a tweet on Monday.

The chief minister also held a review meeting with chief secretary TM Vijay Bhaskar, senior police officers, and forest department officials to coordinate fire-fighting efforts.

The fire first came to notice on Friday, though it is unclear how many hours had passed before it started. Officials of the Forest Survey of India, a Union government agency that monitors forest fires using satellite reports, said alerts had been automatically sent out at 2:20pm on Friday.

The forest fire has gutted thousands of acres of land and is feared to have killed hundreds of wild animals, reptiles and insects. “Forest fires not only destroy habitats and food sources, but they also kill thousands of smaller mammals, ground-nesting birds, insects, slow moving reptiles and other wildlife species. Even young ones of animals such as tigers, leopards, dholes, chital, sambar deer are at times killed by forest fires as the mothers leave them in tree cavities and smaller dens,” said Sanjay Gubbi of the Nature Conservation Foundation.

The 874 sq km Bandipur national park and tiger reserve is among the most popular protected areas in India. The park, along with neighbouring national parks of Nagarhole in Karnataka, Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu and Wayanad in Kerala constitute one of the largest contiguous forests in India. Initial estimates indicate nearly 3,000 hectares may have been turned to ash – an area roughly the size of 1,500 grounds the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Environmental experts said the areas hit could take 25 years to recover. “Regardless of the reason, the damage caused this time is incredible. I think for the flora to recover completely, it might take another 25 years even,” said retired forest official HC Kantharaju said.

State forest officials said the principal cause of the fire is the weather, which has been unusually warm over the past month and is now marked by dry winds. But officials also suspect the role of “miscreants”, who may have deliberately started the fire to protest that forest department’s delay in hiring fire spotters.

“Fire was man-made. It is believed that miscreants from the area have set the fire as an act of vengeance for not being hired as fire guards this season,” said P Sridhar, principal chief conservator of forest, Karnataka.

A fire spotter earns ₹320 per day and each range hires at least 10, making it a critical source of income for many in the region.

According to the Air Force, two helicopters flew 10 sorties on Monday, dumping approximately 30,000 litre of water to fight the fire in the region. “The helicopters have been positioned at Mysuru and will commence the fire fighting operations at sunrise,” a statement said.

Movement of people and vehicles, including cars, buses and trucks have been banned on the National Highway-67 and inter-state roads until further notice across Bandipur.

(With agency inputs)

First Published: Feb 26, 2019 07:25 IST

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