Act fast to check forest fires

The onset of summer in Karnataka usually brings the dread of forest fires in some part or the other, causing incalculable loss to the state’s ecology and environment. With three forest fires in the last few days, even before summer has set in, the situation is ominous and extremely worrying. The wild fire in Moleyuru, Kalkere and Hediyala forest ranges under the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in H D Kote taluk has resulted in thousands of acres of pristine forests being burnt down. Though the fire forces were rushed to the spot immediately, the damage has been immense and unfortunately, a forest guard, Murugappa Thammagol died of asphyxiation and three others received serious burn injuries. The government has announced a compensation of Rs 25 lakh to the next of kin of the deceased, but with proper fire-fighting equipment, it was a wholly avoidable death. Though Minister for Forests and Environment Ramanath Rai has claimed that the state forest personnel were efficient and did not lack equipment, it appears that the forest guards tried to tackle fire without fire-resistant clothing and masks, the blame for which should squarely lie with senior officials of the forest department.

A second forest fire has been reported from Mutthodi range in the Bhadra Reserve which reduced large tracts of forests into ashes, while a third one has occurred in the Mookambika forest range, which is usually not as dry as the other two ranges. A former principal chief conservator of forests says categorically that “all forest fires are man-made and there are hardly any cases of accidental fire” due to lightning or extreme heat. It’s common knowledge that local communities or powerful land-grabbers indulge in such deliberate acts of mischief to extend agricultural activities and it is incumbent upon the government to catch the culprits and punish them. In 2013, when over 500 acres of forests were destroyed in fire in the Nagarahole range, the government instituted a CID inquiry, but nothing came of it and not a single person was punished.

Wildlife experts and environmentalists have pointed out that the latest forest fires may have been worsened by lack of adequate preparations by the Forest Department. Earlier, before the onset of every summer, the department would pay enough attention to create ‘fire lines’ – causing deliberate segregation of the woods at several points to prevent the spread of fire – and preservation of ‘weave lines’ used by wildlife watchers. It seems the department discontinued the practice about eight years ago to keep the poaching under check, but it should do a rethink on this. The government also should relax its ban on recruitment and appoint sufficient number of guards and watchers, who really act as the guardians of the fast-depleting forests.

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