By Arun Pratap Singh
Dehradun, 11 May: Uttarakhand has a total geographical area of around 54,480 square kilometres with around 37999.53 Square Km falling under Forest Department, and it has around 24,400 square kilometres of forest cover. On paper, the state has a large forest department comprising of about 105 IFS officers alone. Despite this, the forest department is generally not able to contain forest forest in the state that destroy up to several thousands of hectares of forests each year. Also it remains a challenge to replant and replace dead trees each year during the monsoons. Consequently, in reality, forests get depleted each year.
According to forest sources, so far till today, fire is reported in over 800 hectares of forest area this year so far. Over 500 incidents of forest fires have been reported so far in the state. Of the total area under fire currently, over 450 hectares lies in Kumaon division while the remaining lies in Garhwal region.
According to the information available, in Kumaon region, fires are raging in Almora, Bageshwar, Pithoragarh, Champawat as well as Nainital districts. The most affected areas in Kumaon are Binsar and Chaunsli in Almora, Kausani and Dhangan in Bageshwar Forest Division, Chaubatia, Sirad and Falsimia, also of Almora Forest Division, Ogla and Narayannagar in Pithoragarh. Jaulasaal and Ramgarh range. In Garhwal division, the major affected areas, Karnaprayag hills including Uma Devi Temple area, Kaleshwar, Dimmer Sirtoli, Ghaghu in Chamoli district, Bhilangana, Pratap Nagar and Balganga areas in Tehri district. Even in Dehradun, over 30 hectares of forest area is reportedly affected by the fires so far!
According to experts and well known environmentalists, poor forest management is the order of the day in Uttarakhand and this is one of the major reasons behind the huge scale of fires raging now. According to the forest department, the major reason behind the forest fires is rising temperatures and also due to villagers burning the dead grass on the edge of forests so that new grass can sprout and they can feed their cattle and goats. However, what they do not officially admit but is responsible for forest fires is also the failure to clear the fire lines of dead leaves and other organic matter and the failure to remove dead organic matter from the forests which can easily catch fire. In Pine forests, pine needles should be removed regularly as they are prone to catching fire. However, this is not done. Sources within the department also admit Often in many areas, forest officials have been known to aid illegal tree felling and poaching and then to cover tracks themselves lighting fires so that evidence of tree felling could be erased. Each year the forest department receives funds from the Centre as well as several international agencies for plantation. Often large part of this money is pocketed with the plantation done only on papers and not in reality.
Consequently, not only diversity is lost but also a large number of wild animals get trapped in fires and get killed including the birds. Sources further admit, that wildlife casualties are severely under reported after fires.
Clearly there has been gross and crass negligence, ignorance and even corruption that has led to this level of forest fires and clearly the wildlife is also getting affected along with the vegetation. Emergency steps need to be taken in order to curb the fires at the earliest lest it would start affecting more and more villages. Already around 200 villages are estimated to be affected this year so far due to forest fires.
It may be recalled that a special post of Chief Conservator Forest Fires was created by the State Forest Department on the orders of Uttarakhand High Court in 2016 but not much has improved at the ground level though with respect to fire management. The department does not have modern technology or resources to deal with forest fires more effectively and has to depend on primitive techniques and procedures. The tools include Spades, trowels, face masks and helmets.
Speaking to this correspondent, Chief Conservator Garhwal, GS Pandey claimed that firelines were cleared every year with utmost sincerity and the crew stations were doing their job of keeping a tab on forest fires. He informed that over 130 crew stations were made functional in the state. The fire drills were on regularly and it was basically due to rising temperatures that the fires were raging in the forests. He also claimed that over 330 fire watchers had been stationed to keep a tab on forest fires. A total of over 800 forest guards had also been deputed for the job.