Odisha needs to learn from TN forest fire tragedy

By A K Sahoo

Bhubaneswar: The March 10 tragedy that struck a group of trekkers in the southern hills of the Western Ghats on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, comes up a wakeup call for the Odisha government.

In Odisha, forest fire is a common phenomenon and it not unlikely we would never be experiencing such catastrophe. In the past, we have seen forest fire not only engulfing the precious forest flora and fauna, but also claiming human lives.

It’s very shocking that despite the Odisha government having a standard operating procedure to prevent forest fires that cause massive ecological and economic losses, there has been no let up in such incidents in the state.

In 2017, satellite imageries have recorded 1,607 forest fires in different jungles of Odisha during March. The number of forest fires surged 57 per cent compared with 1,018 noticed during the corresponding period in 2017.

If occurrences of forest fires during the months of February and March 27 are taken into account, 2,303 fires were been detected since February 1 whereas 1,175 fires were captured by satellite images during the same period in 2016.

An upper primary school at Rengabandha village in Malkangiri district was on March 25 gutted in a forest fire.

As one passes through Odisha’s hilly pockets in summer, he or she would see smoke billowing from acres of forest land.

Forest fires have destroyed 3675.784 ha of forest in 45 divisions during the past three years (2014 to 2016). 2018 figures are not yet available. Once the figure is available, it will be more than 5000 acres.

In 2017, the Forest Department had proposed to draw a more than 20,000-km-long fire line to stop fires from spreading to large areas. Besides, 216 fire fighting squads, with 10 members each, were created in 37 forest divisions of the state that are prone to fires. For the first time, 410 fire blowers were supplied to forest divisions to control fire.

Surprisingly, despite such preparedness incidence of forest fire continues unabated. The reason, according to wildlife experts, is that the state has failed to some extent in forest fire management.

Though the state government had in principle agreed to create a state-level control room to disseminate information about fires and mobilise manpower and resources to douse fires, no such control room has been set up till date, say experts.

According to wildlife expert Biswajit Mohanty, raging forest fires close to National Highways, State Highways or major roads are unpardonable
“Taking advantage of the road connectivity, the forest department can easily extinguish fires before they spread. But along several national and state highways crisscrossing the province, one can invariably find forest fire during summers. The government must fix responsibility on field-level officials at least for roadside forest fires,.

Members of a trekking club from Chennai and some others from cities near the hills were on a Women’s Day trek through forests when they were confronted with a raging forest fire. While little is known on what caused the fire, those on the trek were so disorganised that they didn’t seem to know what to do in case of a forest fire. They seem to have needlessly exposed themselves to danger by trying to walk downhill through the fire instead of climbing to safety where they came from. It also seems they had not been briefed properly on safety precautions. As a result, 10 of them were killed.

The Forest Survey of India (FSI) keeps a close watch and whenever there is a fire, their officials inform the officials of the state forest department
Forest officials are then sent to the spot, he explained.

“On reaching the spot, a forest official will have to take a photo of the spot and upload it in the Whatsapp group, and also in the app as soon as possible. The photo will automatically go to the state principal conservator of forests as well as to all department officials in the Whatsapp group. As a result, nobody in the department can claim to be on the spot without being actually present there. This is in fact a welcome move.

In the traditional methods, forest squads – comprising forest department staff and local people draw fire lines by digging the earth to control the spread of fire.

Blowers are also used to keep dry leaves away from a fire and controlled burning is also carried out.

In Tamil Nadu tragedy, there are two aspects to this. The trek may have been unauthorised, with permission not sought from the forest department, which may not have allowed treks through prohibited areas like reserve forests.

In these things, there’s only a thin red line between adventure and misadventure. The other aspect is that the fire may have had a human element: it seems to have started in the foothills where vegetation is basically grass and it swept up into the woods. A thorough inquiry is needed to establish the cause of the fire.

The governments of states having sizeable forest stretches too must formalise trekking, and make it mandatory for groups to use seasoned foresters as guides before going on hilly terrain. The forest department, along with the hill area authorities, can easily mark safe trekking routes, and only these should be used by trekkers.

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