Bring forest fire culprits to book

Bring forest fire culprits to book

Tens of thousands of hectares of forest land have been destroyed in the fires raging in the foothills of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir. Besides the widespread destruction of plants and trees, the loss of wildlife has been extensive. At least 7 people have died as well. The fires are said to have broken out 3 months ago. Strong winds contributed to local fires coalescing to become a major conflagration. Efforts are on to douse the fires but by the time the government stepped in, much damage was done. Forest fires are not uncommon. In fact, the chir pine forests of the Himalayan foothills are particularly vulnerable as pine needles are highly inflammable. Other parts of India too suffer forest fires often. Two years ago, vast swathes of the Nagarahole and Bandipur tiger reserves were gutted. Two months ago, fire ravaged in these forests again. What sets apart the fires sweeping the Himalayan foothills now is that they are unusually intense. Experts are attributing this to the dry winter that came after two successive years of drought, unusually hot weather and low humidity.

While the fires can be blamed to some extent on natural causes, it is man who must shoulder the bulk of the responsibility as our lifestyles have set in motion climate changes that underlie the ‘natural’ disasters.The land and timber mafia are suspected of having a hand in the fires engulfing the Himalayan foothills. Stern action must be taken against them. Importantly, encroachment on forest land, however ravaged they may be as a result of the fire, must not be allowed under any circumstances. Denying mafias ‘rewards’ for their crimes will prevent future fires.Often, villagers set fire to grasslands to make way for vegetation when the rains come. Such fires often spread to nearby forests.India’s forest cover is fast depleting and fires are said to be among the main reason underlying this. We need to find ways to prevent conflagrations. Fire-line cutting and digging trenches to break the continuity of vegetation must be adopted more widely and systematically to stop a local fire from spreading. State governments have considered cutting down chir pine trees to prevent forest fires. It is based on a perception of pine trees as the only cause of forest fires. This is a flawed approach and one that is ecologically disastrous. Instead, the government could consider inclusion of broad-leafed tree species in pine forests. In addition, it must prosecute forest arsonists and the land and timber mafia, encourage fire-line cutting and ensure swifter response to forest fires.

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