Shimla: Unusually hot and dry conditions this summer have turned the green hills of Himachal Pradesh into a tinderbox - literally. Forest wealth estimated at well over Rs.2 crore (over $400,000) spread over 20,000 hectares has been destroyed in forest fires in just two months this year.
A forest department official said the prolonged dry spell, particularly in the mid and low hills, has led to widespread forest fires. Now, the delay in the arrival of monsoon has further aggravated the situation.
"More than 20,000 hectares of forest has been destroyed in the wild fires till date. This time the damage to forests is more than 10 times compared to last year`s loss of 1,758 hectares," Avtar Singh, Chief Conservator (Forest Protection and Fire Control), told IANS.
The loss to the forest wealth this season was estimated at Rs.2.44 crore, whereas it was just Rs.43 lakh last year.
The total forest loss in 2010 was 7,654 hectares in the state, while it was 24,849 hectares in 2009.
Records of the forest department say 22 percent or 8,267 sq km of the total forest area in the state is fire-prone.
"The last few days (of the peak summer) are quite challenging. Huge tracts of forest near our village have literally turned into a tinderbox. We are praying for timely showers to end the long dry spell," said Jeevan Lal, who is settled on the outskirts of Dharampur town in Solan district.
Forest officials said most fire incidents are deliberate acts. The local villagers also tend to set grasslands afire to get softer grass after the rains. In most cases, the fire from grasslands spreads to nearby forests.
NGO Nature Watch India national convener Rajeshwar Negi, who is based in Shimla, said earlier, fires were mostly confined to pine forests, but now even oak and deodar forests have been experiencing fires.
Billowing smoke from the hills of Kasauli, Chail, Dharampur and Shimla towns have become common these days.
"It`s simply an ecological disaster. From wild animals to birds to thousands of reptiles to fully grown deodar, Himalayan oak and pine trees, all are simply vanishing due to government callousness," he said.
Sadly, the forest department, he said, has stopped doing its annual ritual of controlled forest fires and clearing of fire lines ahead of the fire season.
Citing reports of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), Negi said 100 percent of forest fires in the state are caused by human interference.
"The state has no mechanism to restrict human activity. There is a provision under which rights of villagers can be curtailed if they fail to assist the forest department in extinguishing forest fires, but it has not been enforced," he added.
Contrary to Negi, the forest department said besides clearing fire lines and controlled fires ahead of the fire season, it`s involving the locals to counter the fires.
Chief conservator Singh said over 100 self-help groups comprising villagers have been formed in Hamirpur, Sirmaur, Shimla, Kangra, Bilaspur and Una districts, where most of the wildfire incidents are being reported. "Every day, the groups patrol the forests to check fire incidents. Such exercises have been on every year during peak summer since 2008."
"Hot spots have been identified. We prefer to stay there till sunset. In the evening, another group of villagers, mainly male adults, replaces us. In case of a fire, we report to the forest guards and other villagers," said Preeti Verma, a leader of a group from Bamson village in Hamirpur district, where the maximum number of fire incidents have been reported this year.
According to the Forest Survey of India report of 2009, Himachal Pradesh has 37,033 sq km of forest area, out of which 3,224 sq km is very dense forest.