Forest fires in Uttarakhand may have a devastating effect

The Himalayas have vanished!!! That was the feeling I got when I looked up from my resort in Ranikhet and saw … nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, because there was the haze. In April, when the summer intensifies across north India’s plains and people escape the hills, to not see the mighty mountains looking stunning at every direction around you could leave you feeling cheated.

Forest fires are neither new nor have they been entirely natural, even in Uttarakhand. But the scale of the fires was unprecedented in 2016. Enough to hide the Himalayas behind a veil so deep, it left even the fast track to development lobby stunned.

forest fire
Forest fire aglow at night

This April, forest fires were noted in numerous places across the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Visible as smoke strands during the day, they were brightly lit against the night sky as they burned around the clock in the hills. The forest department estimated that 3500 hectares of forest had been burnt. Nearly 1,600 fires were detected. Seven human fatalities were reported as of 4 May. It will be impossible to quantify the loss of escaping wildlife or burnt to cinder trees.

Does all this not impact tourism? For a state whose economy is largely tourism based, and on which a lot of livelihoods depend, it was really shortsighted to set fires to the dry forests. Set fire? Yes. Under Indian laws, people cannot cut live trees, but dead trees, sure. So, whoever came up with jugaad of killing trees and then feeding the burgeoning timber industry may have made a killing and inspired others, what it also did compromise the future. Of trees, of animals, of tourism and the state’s future.

Tourism and wild life at the Corbett National Park and Rajaji Tiger reserve regions were affected by the forest fire. The fires also disrupted the functioning of the Kalka–Shimla Railway line. Forest fires in the hills of Uttarakhand have damaged valuable natural resources. Many areas were evacuated. There were a slew of cancellations.

The forest department on 3rd May estimated the losses in monetary units to approximately ₹29 lakh due to forest fire. Environmental activists have questioned the value stating that such value cannot be established as various factors like wild life losses and ecological losses have not been gauged in this. They added that these fires have also destroyed vegetation which holds rainfall which might result in floods in the monsoon.

A major reason for forest fires in Uttarakhand are the highly inflammable material of dry chir pine needles. Chir pine covers about16 per cent of the state and its fallen dry needles are highly inflammable and its open resin ducts are considered a main catalyst for fires in pine forests.

Ecologists suggested that clearing of forest floors of the fallen pine leaves, which are readily combustible, should be undertaken by forest department as well as locals on grass root level to prevent such major fire outbreaks.

The rains on the 3 May helped in reducing the impact of fires. But what has already burnt will not be replaced ever.

Musafir Namah Bureau


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