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Burning issue: IAF, NDRF called in to put out Uttarakhand #ForestFires

Raju Gusain | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

The Indian Air Force and the NDRF were deployed Saturday to put out the fires laying waste to forests in Uttarakhand. The fires have claimed at least six people, and are threatening to engulf several villages. Nainital, Chamoli, Pauri Garhwal and Dehradun districts are the worst-affected.

Apart from calling in the IAF and three NDRF companies, the administration has sought help from army units stationed in the state. It has also approached the National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad, to provide satellite data.

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While one NDRF company has managed to control the forest fires in Khirsu, Hulaki, Manderkhet and Haryali Sain in Pauri district, another is battling the blaze in Karanprayag in Chamoli district. The third company is at work at the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in Almora. The IAF has deployed two helicopters to put out the fires in Pauri and Nainital districts.

Some 9,500 forest department workers are firefighting. And IAF, NDRF and police are helping: BP Gupta

The IAF and the NDRF had to be requested because, according to a source, the state forest department was found ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the fires. To be fair though, the fires aren't easy to control given their spread and intensity, and the hostile terrain. Indeed, even the NDRF is finding it hard going across the mountainous terrain, not least because sources of water have dried up.

Such is the challenge that, according to the source, the forest department officials are praying to the rain gods for help. That may be a while coming: the meteorological department has predicted rainfall at "isolated places", but only from 2 May.

"We are making every possible effort to control the forest fires by involving different agencies of the state government," said Amit Negi, the secretary for disaster management.

BP Gupta, the forest department's nodal officer for fire control, told Catch, "We have engaged about 9,500 forest department staff - 3,500 regular and 6,500 temporary - for firefighting. And we are taking help from IAF, NDRF and the police. Today, two choppers of the Air Force was used in affected areas."

A disaster foretold

Forest fires are an annual feature in Uttarakhand, starting mid-February and burning through till June. But they are usually limited in spread and intensity. This year, the fires have turned devastating because low rainfall last year has left forest floors with little moisture. The ongoing heat wave has worsened the situation. Also, occasional rainfall in April used to keep the forest fires under control, but this April was unprecedentedly dry.

Add to this mix the lack of foresight and preparation by the state, and it reads disaster. At least 991 forest fires have been reported this year so far, affecting over 2,111 hectares.

The administration, in fact, has failed to tackle the crisis so miserably that residents of Jardhar Gaon in Tehri took matters in their own hands, and did a commendable job of it, too. Led by social activist Vijay Jardhari, some 40 villagers successfully put out the fires in the local forest, armed with little more than buckets of water and brooms to sweep away dry leaves. It took them five days to get the job done.

Villagers must be empowered with firefighting tools and resources to curb forest fires: Vijay Jardhari

Jardhari said, "The fires have gutted the green layer of the forest. Leave aside the villagers, wild animals will have to struggle for fodder and water this year due to the loss of vegetation." To prevent such tragedies, Jardhari added, "the government should empower villagers with firefighting tools and resources to keep forest fires under control".

Apart from the loss to life and resources, the fires could also result in a health crisis. Most of the state's hilly areas are blanketed with smoke, with people at many places complaining to health officials of "itchy eyes and respiratory problems".

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First published: 1 May 2016, 5:18 IST