The forests of Uttarakhand are burning. Completely unsuccessful in dousing the fire, the forest department has now approached the locals for help. It was only after the fire started that the authortities of the hill state realised that around half the funds approved for extinguishing forest fires hadn’t been disbursed as of then.
The process of holding officials accountable for the catastrophe started.
The horrific fire engulfing the forests from Kumaon to Garhwal in Uttarakhand proved that the arrangements in place for dealing with forest fires were all but ineffective. It was also after the spread of wildfires that authorities in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled state started their search for a fire watchman. CM Trivendra Singh Rawat is now believed to be hoping for an early monsoon season, to put out the fires.
The forest fires this time around are believed to be among the fiercest in the last 17 years, second worse to only the blazes in 2016. Forest resources to the tune of ₹54 lakh have been gutted this year, topping ₹45 lakh damage that occurred in 2016. There are still 20 days left in the fire seasons, which usually goes on from Feb 15 through June 15.
At least 1,336 incidents of forest fires were recorded till May 25, affecting 2,577 hectares of land. In 2016, 4,437 hectares of forest land was affected by these fires.
According to the Forest Survey of India, most of the alerts for forest fire in the country were issued in Uttarakhand. From May 19 to May 25 this year, the department issued 4,674 alerts in Uttarakhand only. While in Himachal 2,686 alerts, 1,564 alerts in Jammu and Kashmir, 854 alerts in Punjab and 586 alerts in Maharashtra were issued during this time.
According to the Assistant Director at Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India (FSI), Sunil Chandra, the department is meant to issue a warning before the forest fires start and even during them, based on the information and images they get through satellite under the pre-warning system.
Most of the alerts for forest fires in the country were issued in Uttarakhand. From May 19 to May 25 this year, the department issued 4,674 alerts in Uttarakhand alone. During the same period, 2,686 alerts were issued in Dehradun, 1,564 in Jammu and Kashmir, 854 in Punjab and 586 in Maharashtra, as per FSI figures
Sunil Chandra, an Assistant Director at FSI, however, says all these alerts do not convert into actual forest fire. “This is just a way to alert people on the basis of the satellite images. For example, out of all the alerts issued in Uttarakhand over the last week, forest fire started in 550 places only,” he said.
“The incidents of forest fire are not treated as natural disaster, with Air Force and other agencies only called to help when the situation goes out of control,” Chandra added.
He went on, “The topography of Uttarakhand is a rough one. So it’s difficult to extinguish a fire there. If the forest is 50 metres away, there may be a deep chasm in between. Therefore, it becomes difficult to control forest fires in a hilly region.”
When the forest fire in Uttarakhand became difficult to control, the officials of the forest department started fretting. The district forest officers (DFO) complained about the lack of staff and resources in their own region.
The chief forest conservator, Jairaj, is now blaming local residents and was annoyed at them. The state’s CM, Trivendra Singh Rawat, on the other hand, is holding the district magistrates accountable for the forest fires.
The CM has been reported as asking the forest officials, “If all the arrangements for dealing with forest fire were at place, then why was it so difficult to control these fires.” Taking the nodal officer of the forest department, VP Gupta, to task, Rawat reportedly asked as to why only 50% of the total amount of ₹12 crore for the prevention of forest fires had been disbursed till then.
At present, more than 360 places are in the grip of forest fire. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), rains were on the cards from Monday. Only then, the flames of the forest fires will fade away.
(Translated into English by Pragati Saxena).