Home/ Opinion / Forest fires for dummies

The hills are on fire. Large swathes of forest in Uttarakhand and parts of Himachal Pradesh have been burning for weeks. At night, one can see the ring of fire spread for many a mile across the rolling hills. Photographs of the wildfire may have set the social media abuzz, but the “expert" comments on the natural disaster remain off the mark.

Forest fires, man-made or natural, are an annual phenomenon in the hill states. They usually happen in patches in the dry summer months. However, this year, the fire situation is particularly severe because it has been reported simultaneously across several districts. According to foresters, large forest fires are also cyclic. They happen once every four-five years, particularly in years when the moisture content in the air drops significantly. These are the years when man-made fires spiral out of control and create havoc.

Every year, villagers living in the hills far from the roads set off fires to clear leaf litter that accumulates on the narrow mountain pathways. The predominant species in this forest is the pine and dry pine needles are extremely slippery as well as volatile. Here, it needs only one matchstick to start a raging fire. Further, what adds fuel to the fire is pinesap or resin, which are extracted by villagers from the barks of standing trees. Miscreants and errant kids also play a role here. Random torching helps the fire spread further and faster. What seems innocuous initially often turns an entire hillside to ashes.

Villagers also routinely set fire to grasslands to burn off unpalatable grass; new shoots of palatable grass emerge as part of natural regeneration, a much-needed fodder for livestock. This is the mountain way of life. But when a fire goes out of control, especially in an inaccessible mountain terrain, there is little one can do.

According to forest officials, a combination of factors—poor monsoon, no winter rain, less precipitation (dew and snowfall) and high temperatures—had dried up the hills, creating a gigantic tinderbox. Even the intermittent showers, which fall in April, were missing this year.

These are telltale signs of climate change and how the water regime in the atmosphere has altered. These are pressing issues concerning the sustainability of the hill states, but TV pundits, armchair environmentalists and social media commentators aren’t interested in science or ecology. Instead, blaming an imagined timber mafia or a resource-constrained forest department suits them to get brownie points.

Instead of advocating half-truths, one should check on the large inventory of unsold timber lying in Haldwani, where repeated auctions have failed to clear stocks.

For the under-staffed forest department, summer fires are an age-old issue. With no timely resource allocation, firefighting here is hand-to-hand combat. One has to trek up the steep slopes to douse the flames. It is a constant cat-and-mouse game on the mountain—as soon as one little patch is brought under control, a neighbouring one goes up in flames. As the wind keeps shifting, so does the fire, and sometimes, the flames encircle the firefighters. One wrong step could mean the end for these men who work for months without timely salaries.

The blame games in social media and TV studios only show the age of hyper-rabid environmentalism with little understanding of ecology. The hills have been burning and will do so in the years to come, unless people become more aware and responsible towards guarding nature. By skirting the issues of climate change and natural resource management, we are only fooling ourselves.

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Updated: 02 May 2016, 07:08 PM IST
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