Shimla: Summer fires in the wooded areas and grasslands of Himachal Pradesh are nothing new, but long dry spells often turn the hills into a tinderbox. This year priceless forest wealth has been destroyed in more than 400 fire incidents in April alone.
Officials of the forest department say the prolonged dry summer, particularly in the mid and low hills, has led to widespread forest fires.
"The sudden abnormal rise in temperature and the prolonged dry spell have led to an alarming rise in forest fires. In the month of April, the raging fire has gobbled up 5,177 hectares of forests across the state," Avtar Singh, chief conservator (forest protection and fire control), told.
He said forest wealth worth Rs.53,44,156 has been destroyed in 432 fire incidents from April 1 to 28. In 2009-10, 1,906 fire incidents had burnt down 24,849 hectares of forest land.
According to him, Bilaspur, Una, Hamirpur, Kangra, Sirmaur, Solan, Mandi and Shimla are the worst affected districts in the state.
Manmohan Singh, director of the meteorological office in Shimla, said the maximum temperature was six to seven degrees higher than average in March and eight to 10 degrees higher in April. "The lack of moisture in the soil also resulted in more forest fires," he added.
Records of the forest department say 22 percent or 8,267 sq km of the total forest area in the state is fire-prone. A majority of the fires are reported from the pine forests since during the summer the trees shed pine needles that are highly inflammable due to the rich content of turpentine oil.
The pine forest is found up to an altitude of 5,500 feet.
Principal chief conservator of forests Vinay Tandon said the government has been developing a mechanism to collect pine needles by involving the locals.
"We are planning to collect pine needles from the forests and supply these to industrial units that are using these as combustible material. We have identified some of the end users and are negotiating with them in this regard," he said.
The department is also planning to adopt global positioning system (GPS) technology for reporting fire incidents.
"Madhya Pradesh has made remarkable progress in monitoring forest fires through GPS. We have requested it to develop a model for this state too. The technology would not only help monitor forest fires but also keep track on new plantations and forest encroachments," Forest Minister J.P. Nadda said.
He said rapid response teams have been constituted for fire-fighting. Even the leave of forest employees has been cancelled till June 15, the peak summer season.
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.
As per the State Forest Report of 2005 published by the Forest Survey of India, Himachal Pradesh has 14,752 sq km of forest area, out of which 1,097 sq km is very dense.