Officials fiddled while forests burnt

Video grab of the fire department extinguishing the wildfire in Bandipur forest area from a helicopter.

The fire that destroyed over 3,000 hectares of fully-grown forest in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve could have been put off long before the damage reached such proportions had water been sprayed from helicopters the moment the fire was first noticed. Instead, authorities took four days to even begin doing so. The Bandipur fire once again points to the lack of preparedness of the forest department against forest fires which have become an annual feature. Broadly, forest fires are of two kinds: surface fire that consumes dried leaves and grass and is confined to the ground level, and crown fire that burns down trees when the surface fire is not immediately controlled, as it happened in Bandipur. Fires can occur due to natural causes like a spark or lightning, but most often, they are the result of human negligence or even sabotage. The Bandipur blaze is suspected to be an act of sabotage.

There is an acute deficit of trust between forest department officers and people living in the fringes of the forest, who are frequently booked for hunting small game or grazing their cattle in restricted areas. Often, they retaliate by resorting to arson. Thus, there is an urgent need for confidence building measures between the two as only a joint forest fire management approach with public participation can prevent such occurrences in the future. A scheme aimed at hiring forest watchers from among the local community so that they can alert the authorities about poaching, timber smuggling or fires has also not been implemented effectively. The forest department has not succeeded in utilising the services of wildlife wardens and NGOs who enjoy greater confidence among the people living in the affected area, especially tribals. Though funds have been allocated to educate schoolchildren and other stakeholders located in the periphery of forests on prevention and reporting of fires, not much progress has been made on this front, either.

A report of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has confirmed that wildfires in the country went up by 158% in the past six years, with over 35,000 incidents reported, but this has not awakened the state government, though today real-time alerts of forest fires are available from space agencies Isro and Nasa. It is known that fires usually occur during the summer months, but the forest department is never geared up in terms of mobilising men and resources well in advance. The post-event response, too, has been lackadaisical due to the failure to requisition Air Force helicopters and press other modern technologies into service quickly. The forest department has been clearly found wanting, and unless it puts its house in order at the earliest, all our forests may soon be reduced to cinders.

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Officials fiddled while forests burnt

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