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Uttarakhand: Fire in Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary kills 4 persons fighting the disaster, 4 others sustain injuries, read how state’s forest fires are turning into infernos

Uttarakhand reported 1,213 forest fire occurrences from 1st November to the evening of 12th June, compared to 663 incidents during the same period last year.

A tragic incident occurred in the Almora district of Uttarakhand on 13th June where a major fire broke out in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary area which led to four deaths. Those who died included forest beat officer Trilok Mehta (56), fire watcher Karan Arya (21), Prantiya Rakshak Dal (PRD) member Puran Mehra (52) and Deewan Ram (35), a daily wage worker. The staff arrived at the location in a departmental vehicle in the afternoon to put out the fire.

However, according to officials, the fire was blazing so fiercely that the workers were promptly engulfed in the flames and suffered serious burns. Notably, several frontline forest workers have already lost their lives in a wildfire in three separate incidents this year, bringing the overall number of casualties from the forest fire season to ten. Nine of these deaths happened in the Almora region alone.

Ex-gratia payments of Rs 10 lakh each to the family members of the deceased have been declared by Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. He added, “In this hour of grief, the entire Uttarakhand government stands with the families of the forest workers. I have instructed the officials to immediately airlift the four forest workers who were injured to Haldwani Base Hospital or to AIIMS (All India Institute Of Medical Sciences) Rishikesh,” Firefighting operations are in progress since the fire is still quite strong in the area. Four others who endured burns were moved to a nearby hospital.

According to the chief minister’s special secretary, Parag Madhukar Dhakate, the instance happened in the Civil Soyam Forest Division of Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary at around 3:30 pm. He pointed out that the issue is being constantly monitored. A post-mortem is being performed on the deceased. Forest department employees and PRD jawans took a vehicle to reach the spot upon receiving the information. A communique from the state government unveiled, “Their vehicle caught fire. Four of them died before they could jump out of the vehicle, while others got injured.”

Three workers lost their lives trying to put out a forest fire that destroyed a resin factory in the Almora district last month. The Uttarakhand forest fire bulletin revealed that during the past twenty-four hours, seven occurrences involving 4.50 hectares of affected forest have been reported

The massive problem of forest fires in Uttarakhand

According to Nishant Verma, the state’s assistant principal chief conservator of forests and nodal officer for forest fires, Uttarakhand reported 1,213 forest fire occurrences from 1st November to the evening of 12th June, compared to 663 incidents during the same period last year. Seven forest fire incidents were reported by the state on 12th June, four of them were in Garhwal, one in Kumaon and one in the wildlife administration region. The fires caused damage to more than thirteen hectares of forest area.

Over 142 hectares of Uttarakhand’s forestland were destroyed between the 20th to 27th of April this year by massive forest fires that tore across the state’s densely wooded mountains for several hours. The Indian Air Force sent out a Mi-17 V5 helicopter with a “Bambi Bucket” to put out a fire that had spread to a nearby Air Force Station near the Nanda range. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami expressed alarm over the out-of-control forest fires and stated that the government was making every effort to contain them.

Mi-17 helicopter contains blaze near Lariyakta in Nainital. (Source: The Times of India)

He conveyed, “The forest fires are a challenge for us. This is a big fire. We are working for all the essential needs. We have asked for help from the Army. I am going to conduct a meeting in Haldwani today. We have conducted a meeting in Dehradun also regarding this. We will try to control the fire as soon as possible.” He further stated that anybody found guilty of causing forest fires would face consequences from the respective district administrations.

Naresh Bhatt from Tadiyal village in Tehsil-Jakholi was apprehended by the forest fire protection squad led by Divisional Forest Officer Rudraprayag. According to a news release from the district administration, he was attempting to light the forests on fire to provide space for goats to graze. Hemant Singh and Bhagwati Lal were caught after they were discovered lighting a fire in the North Jakholi village of Dangwal.

The Forest Survey of India (FSI) sent the forest department almost 7,000 alerts this April for both small and large forest fires, a considerable increase over the 925 alerts received during the same period the previous year. The state of Uttarakhand experienced 43 additional wildfire occurrences in a 24-hour period in May, destroying 62 hectares of forest area. This marked an increase in the intensity of the already-raging fire occurrences. 1011 hectares of forest were burnt in a total of 804 incidents. 

Months-long wildfires continued to consume the Himalayan hill state’s vegetation. Five individuals reportedly died as a result of 910 forest fire events that have damaged 1,145 hectares of woodland since 1st November. The Uttarakhand Forest Department also lost a significant amount of revenue, more than Rs 25 lakh, as a result of the fires. Pushkar Singh Dhami directed Chief Secretary Radha Raturi to notify all district magistrates and provide guidelines for routinely monitoring forest fires. Additionally, he requested that all district magistrates issue orders prohibiting the burning of any kind of fodder for a week at this time. The burning of solid trash in or close to forests was asked to be prohibited by urban bodies.

The authorities arrested Mosar Alam, Nazifar Alam, Nurul, Salim and Feroz Alam as Uttarakhand grappled with forest fires for weeks which destroyed over 1000 acres of forest area. Furthermore, the state police nabbed at least 52 people for setting fire to forests and destroying several acres of pristine land and as many as 315 cases were registered under the Forest Conservation Act.

A forest fire in Nainital district in Uttarakhand. (Source: The Hindu)

Reasons behind the fire and government response

According to the most recent biennial report by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), forest cover makes up 24,305 square kilometres, or a startling 44.5%, of the state’s 53,483 square kilometres geographical area. 0.2% of these forests are categorized as extremely prone to fire, 1.6% as very highly prone, 9.3% as highly prone, 21.7% as moderately prone, and 67.25% as less prone to fire.

Forest fires are uncontrolled natural fires that happen by accident and threaten the world’s forest ecosystems. Any kind of fire needs three things to survive: fuel, oxygen, and a heat source. This is commonly known as the “fire triangle.” In a forest, there is an abundance of oxygen and fuel in the form of dried trees, shrubs, grasses, and litter, especially during the hot and dry summer months. Drought, dry weather and parched vegetation can all provide simple firewood. A forest fire’s ability to spread is greatly aided by strong winds.

A pamphlet found on the Uttarakhand Forest Department website highlighted that the primary causes of forest fires are high-tension cables, an abundance of highly combustible chir pine trees, and the rising number of people leaving the region for other states, which has left the hills desolate. It pointed out that while the younger generation lacks the environmental education found in the present academic curriculum, making them unprepared to deal with forest fires, older generations who make up the majority of those living in the hills are unable to scale the hilltops to contain the fires. Notably, 95% of forest fires are caused by people, per a 2019 report from the Forest Research Institute, which is housed under the Environment Ministry of India.

Firefighters try to douse a fire after it broke out in the forest in Bageshwar, in May. (Source: India Today)

The Uttarakhand administration declared that “all the instances of forest fires are manmade” in an 8th May Supreme Court hearing. It notified the court that 388 criminal charges against people detected starting forest fires had been filed around the state. According to the administration, the majority of those nabbed tried to burn their stubble but were unable to contain the flames that spread quickly because of high winds. According to the government’s 380-page interim status report filed with the court, fires had an impact on just 0.1% of the forest cover. The state notified the court that the forest fires were being handled by the State Disaster Response Force and the National Disaster Response Force.

After expressing satisfaction with the state’s response about the steps it was taking to address the issue, the court postponed the case until September 2024. The state mentioned that among other things, it was filling open positions at the field level of the Forest Department and had utilized the whole Compensatory Afforestation Fund for firefighting and fire prevention. Meanwhile, Rs 3 lakh in insurance coverage was promised by the state government for 4,000 contract workers in the forest department.

Interestingly, the proposal to utilise pine needles, which fall from the trees from mid-March to the start of July rains, to produce electricity has been developed by the Uttarakhand administration. The chief minister also announced this year the launch of the Pirul Lao-Paise Pao (bring pine leaves and get money) plan, under which the State will buy pine leaves at Rs 50 per kg, significantly more than the previous rate of Rs 3 per kg.

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