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Fire on the Mountain

Forest fires started in parts of Uttarakhand in February, and raged on for the next three months

Nirupama Sekhri
Publish Date: May 27 2016 3:46PM | Updated Date: May 27 2016 7:22PM

Fire on the Mountain

 Forest fires started in parts of the Central Himalayan State of Uttarakhand early in February, and raged on for the next three months. Indian Forest Service official BP Gupta, who is Nodal Officer for Forest Fires with the Department of Forests in Haldwani, Uttarakhand, tells Nirupama Sekhri about the scale of damage slapped by the fire and the lesson left behind by the disaster

Can you give an estimate of the damage and loss suffered due to the fires in Uttarakhand?
Due to paucity of winter rains last year and ever rising temperature this year and with no rains and low humidity, the occurrence of forest fires has gone up in 2016. As of 7th May 2016, a total of 1828 cases of forest fires have taken place, affecting an area of 4015.50 hectares. The most affected districts are Pauri-Garhwal, Nainital, Almora, Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Pithoragarh, Tehri and Dehradun. The chir-pine forests have been more affected by the forest fires. The estimated loss due to fire has been to the tune of Rs 42 lakhs so far. Seven human casualties, 17 human injuries and seven cattle deaths have been reported.
Was inferno of this scale expected and was the forest department prepared for it?
Due to adverse weather conditions, increase in the number of fire incidences in comparison to last year, this was well expected and the department had prepared accordingly. But, the incidents of fire had suddenly seen a spurt on 27th and 28th April. Taking immediate action, decisions were taken at the highest level and necessary directions were forwarded to the DMs, SPs, DFOs and other officers of the State. By now, it has been brought totally under control and as of now (8th May) there is no active fire in the State.
What is the level of fire fighting equipment and manpower trained for forest fires in Uttarakhand?
We have sufficient availability of fire fighting equipments and tools for prevention and control of forest fires. 
During pre-forest fire season, we trained over 14 thousand persons, including fire watchers and village committee members. We have 40 Master Control Rooms and 1166 crew stations all equipped with fire fighting tools and equipments, connected with each other through wireless system. Each crew station had five to seven members, which were doubled after the sudden spurt in fire incidences on 27th and 28th April. 
The Master Control Room is equipped with forest fire danger rating system to forecast the chances of forest fire in any area to enable us to mark out areas with more chances of fire. Pre-fire alert for next seven days for potential fire sensitive areas are being uploaded at department’s website 
Extended weather forecast for next 15 days is also being uploaded on the Department’s website for use by the District Forest Officers (DFOs) to plan their strategy accordingly.
Daily monitoring of fire threats with the help of satellite imagery and information technology is being done. Forest Survey of India provides MODIS satellite data of forest fires to forest officials through SMS/Email and on getting information crew members rush to the incidence area. 
Training/workshop, rallies, street plays, meetings of village/block/district-level Fire Protection Committees, distribution of publicity pamphlets etc. have been taken up for awareness generation.
Are there regular drills that local people go through to be better prepared to handle forest fires?
During fire season, i.e. 15th Feb to 15th June, regular fire drills and mock exercises are conducted at each level. The mass awareness programmes continue throughout the fire season.
What about the loss of wildlife? Are the numbers of animals and birds in the region well recorded to be able to estimate a drop in variety and numbers? 
I would like to mention that as such no loss to wild animals has been reported so far. There would be some damage to the nests and eggs of birds in the fire affected areas, but there is no loss to the adult birds or mammal or other fauna, that must have moved to safe places. 
We are very much concerned about wildlife. Four Wildlife Rescue Rapid Response Squads have been deployed at Rajaji National Park, Corbett Tiger Reserve, Nainital Zoo and Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary. These squads are equipped with a van with wireless connectivity, a veterinary doctor, an assistant, two forest frontline staff, tranquilising guns and medicines, emergency medicines, nets, spotlights and other necessary paraphernalia, and are well trained to deal with wildlife rescue operations.
Also, water tankers have been engaged for supplying water to the water holes in the Protected Areas like national parks and sanctuaries and other wildlife rich areas. Instructions have been given in all Protected Areas to ensure water availability in the water holes and to ready water tankers, if necessary. 

What are some of the lessons we have learnt and what are some important policy interventions/modifications you would suggest as a crucial learning from such a disaster? 
The sudden rise in the number of forest fires is one of the manifestations of the climate change phenomenon. To combat it in the long term, the Department proposes to provide for soil and water conservation projects which will replenish the ground water and increase soil moisture content. The department also proposes to make biological check dams using Chir or pine needles. This will reduce the biological fuel load in the Pine Forests.
A proposal has already been sent to Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change for cutting trees for clearing fire-lines above 1000 metres and to reduce the biological fuel load in the pine forests.
- BP Gupta, IFS, is the Nodal Officer for Forest Fires, and Chief Conservator of Forests is in the Vigilance and Legal Cell, Haldwani Uttarakhand