The scenic natural beauty of Uttarakhand may just have a short lifespan, as developers and industrial growth poke their ugly fingers at the smallest of towns and villages.
A national emergency is being ignored even as a chain of massive forest fires – more than 398 reported cases till last count – have swept the state in the past seven days, leaving in its wake destroyed forests and dead trees running into hundreds of thousands.
Raging forest fires, with majority of them in Uttarakhand, entered the 88th day today. The fires in the state have destroyed nearly 3,000 acres of forest cover and killed six people, and have prompted the Centre to send in three companies of the National Disaster Response Force or NDRF to put out the flames and conduct rescue operations.
In all, 135 NDRF personnel have been pushed into service in the hill state, sources said. The Prime Minister’s office has sought information on the fires.
As large parts of Uttarakhand’s forests were engulfed by fire on Saturday, three teams of the National Disaster Response Force were deployed for Kumaon and Garhwal regions and 6,000 forest staff struggled to contain the flames sweeping the State.
The emergency in many districts is now visible from several distant areas, as forests continue to burn,many areas are covered by smoke from burning forests.
Who is to Blame ?
It was believed that natural causes led to the fires before nature conservationists and environmentalists began to unearth the actual reason of how and why they broke out. Speaking about the recent spurt in cases, a forest official says: “Millions of animals, birds and insects have been charred. You see builders want the trees to burn and die in areas where the locals own forested land. They can only sell once the trees die as they can then build on the land. Villagers sell the timber and a nexus is formed, this scale of burning all over the state is mind-boggling, and the wood alone from these fires will earn thousands of crores to the illicit timber black marketeers.”
He added that no one could fight the perpetrators. “They are powerful as long as they buy wood locals will sell it. And we are understaffed. How much can we do? There are right now 16 calls and we are already busy. They are all just eating money.”
“Protected forests of Kumaon and Garwal have been set ablaze by villagers for many years, they set fire to the forests in order to expect a better growth of grass and the main source of illicit income, the dead trees. but this year, it is a massive offensive and all parts of the state are burning. We have a small bird watchers group in Sattal and we caught three minor boys setting fire to the forest there. We asked them why, and they told us their father had instructed them to set fire to the jungle. We doused the flames with water but the next day it was once agin set on fire,” says Rahul Sharma, a bird expert.
“Unless the army is deployed immediately, we will have a grim situation on our hands. We need help to fight the fires but none has been sent in a week,” says victor, a local resident of Bhimtal.
They continue to take their toll and have now spread to more than 674.58 hectares of forest land in the Garhwal region, affecting populated areas in the vicinity. Things are grim as both the reserve and civil forests have come under the fire.
As per the office of the chief conservator of forests, Pauri, till April 29, 179 incidents of fire occurred in the Garhwal circle and destroyed about 253.70 hectares of forest land while 118 fire incidents affected another 129.50 hectares in the Bhagirathi circle. Besides, 22 fire incidents have affected 57.60 hectares of forests in the Yammuna circle. In the Garhwal forest circle, of the 353.70 hectares of land destroyed, 123.45 hectares were part of the reserve forest and 230.25 hectares of the civil forest area.
Area under forest fire doubles this season
Official data for the past three years for Uttarakhand show that the area under forest fires has more than doubled this year. In 2014, it was 384.5 hectares while in 2015, it was 930.33 hectares. This year it has already touched 2,000 hectares.
Van Panchayats and local residents have been engaged and a 24-hour helpline set up.
Uttarakhand has been under a dry spell this year with either scanty or no rainfall in most areas. “High temperature with no moisture was the major reason for fires this year,” Mr. Kumar said, adding that intense winds had exacerbated the situation.
Widespread fire could also be attributed to the presence of pine trees in18 per cent of forests here.
Since the British period there has been a monoculture of pine trees in many forests of Uttarakhand. Their leaves can catch fire easily,” Vinod Pande, a retired forest officer said.
While careless residents and visitors could have caused some fires, illicit timber trade too is responsible. “Major illicit timber trade relies on pine forests since it is used for construction,” Mr. Pande said.
NDRF teams have been deployed in Almora, Gauchar and Pauri districts and SDRF is assisting in rescue operations in Nainital.
The Governor has doubled the number of personnel deployed to control the fires from 3000 to 6000. He has also asked all agencies including SDRF, district administration and the rural population to contribute their bits in the exercise, saying the forest department alone cannot accomplish the onerous task, Gupta said.
Enough funds have been made available to all affected districts besides required personnel and equipment to deal with any situation, they said.
The Centre has deployed two MI-17 helicopters to douse the forest blaze in Uttarakhand.
“Two helicopters were sent by the Indian Air Force. One has been sent in Gorakhal Sainik School and another one in Pouri, Srinagar. The speciality of the helicopter is it can take 5,000 litre of water from any source of water, be it pond or river and can drop it anywhere,” Wing Commander V.K. Singh, operation in-charge, Airforce said.
“Our mission is to carry water from Bhimtal to places where fire is burning. There is a huge area covering the flames. We will maintain a distance of 100 metre from the fire to douse the flames,” he added.
IAF’s 11-member team have begins fire fighting operations to put out Uttarakhand forest fires using Bambi Buckets.