Bhutan lost more than 45,000 acres of forest to fire in last five years

It’s season where the dry and windy atmosphere creates condition even for a small spark of fire to flare up and engulf the forest and it’s mostly human carelessness that leads to the disaster

Jan 31, 2013 0

A man-made disaster

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fireBattling flames with branches

COVER STORY It was an ordinary winter afternoon and ranger Gyaltshen was in his office, seated in front of the computer documenting information, when a nervous voice, loaded with tension, crackled on his communication set.

In the dry season, the communication set usually transmitted news that foresters dreaded.  The voice relayed information about a forest fire at Debsiphakha in Thimphu.

Immediately, ranger Gyaltshen informed the four beat officers in his range to mobilise foresters to come and help contain the fire that was engulfing the ridge.

Having done that, without losing time, Gyaltshen then picked up a fire rack, knife, and the 18-litre water bag from his office store, and rushed to the site in his office hilux.

The fire was spreading rapidly on the slopes, consuming the dried grass rapidly.  This called for more help.  Gyaltshen called his chief forest officer and asked to seek help from the armed forces.

Joining forest fire fighters and volunteers, Gyaltshen then started battling the raging flames with branches he ripped from a nearby tree.

“With a strong wind fueling the fire, I thought it could take days for us to contain it,” he said.

Among the lot battling the flames was forester Phub Tshering from forest protection unit.  He’d rushed to the site with a knife and spade, as soon as he heard about the incident.

Apart from thrashing branches to put off the flames, he also drew a fire line with the spade and knife, while keeping a close eye on the movement of fire. “It helped protect a settlement and a community lhakhang,” he said.

Having received calls for help, the armed forces and desuung and other volunteers, including residents from nearby communities, flocked to the site.

Two hours later, the fire was under control.  But ten acres of forest was lost to fire.

All in all, the fire at Debsiphakha was a manageable one.  At times, the fire burns forests for days, spreading from mountain to mountain to inaccessible territories, making it difficult to control the fire.

When valleys are usually enveloped or cloudy overhead, foresters dreading the worst, check with foresters in other offices in neighbouring districts to check if a forest is burning.

Every year, about 40-45 forest fire incidents are reported, and about 9,000 to 10,000 acres of forest area are lost. “It’s the biggest threat to our forest,  which we boast to be over 72 percent,” a forester said.

Forest fire, forestry officials said, literally meant a fire that occurs in a government reserved forests.

Blue pine, chirpine, mixed conifer, broadleaf with conifer, plantations and degraded forests, which cover approximately 40 percent of the total forest area, are most susceptible to frequent forest fires.

Records maintained by the forest fire management division showed that, in the last five years, more than 45,000 acres of forest were lost to fire.

Fire incidences 2007-2012

November to April is the peak forest fire season.  Low temperatures and lack of rainfall, perennial grasses, and increased wind velocity, officials from meteorology department said, quickens drying process making areas susceptible to fire.

“The dry and windy atmosphere creates condition even for a small spark of fire to flare up and engulf the forest,” an official from the division said.

Meteorology officials explained areas, with less than 1,000mm rainfall annually, are at high risk of having forest fires.

Kurizampa, Trashigang, Tangmachu, Rongthong in the east and Thimphu, Paro, Haa and Wangduephodrang in the west, and some rain shadow areas of the central region fall in high risk zones.

“Because of little rainfall, high day-time temperatures and afternoon winds, the forest floor dries out very quickly, leading to a high risk of fire,” an official explained. “Chirpine growing areas are also high risk zone.

Forests are considered as the most important natural wealth, and the economy is dependent on its protection, conservation and management, according to foresters.

“But forest fire are mainly caused by human intervention,” a forester said.

Some of the common causes of forest fire are agriculture debris burning, purposely setting off fires for regeneration of grass for cattle by farmers and by lemon grass harvesters, smokers, children playing with flammable materials, roadside worker burning bitumen or making fire to warm themselves or cook, campfires and electrical short circuit.

Claiming 100 percent of the forest fires to have been manmade, an official from the forest fire management division said, in the last five years, there were about 32 cases caused from agriculture debris burning.

“There were 10 to 11 cases reported to have been occurred while children were playing,” he said.

Citing an example of the fire that occurred in November 2012 at Samarzingkha, Thimphu the official said children, who were playing near the Thimchu set the fire and ran away from the area. “Parents shouldn’t give igniting objects to their children,” he said.

Once fire sparks, it spreads fast.  Fighting forest fire, foresters say, is difficult in a mountainous terrain, where road connectivity is very limited.

In places, where there is road connectivity, containing fire is much easier, since the fire brigade being able to access the site.

Most fires occur in places with no water source nearby or manpower.  Afternoon incidences are the most difficult to bring under control, with winds fanning the flames.

While these natural elements restrict firefighting, lack of equipment also hinders the process.  Unlike in developed countries, firefighter are without masks, gloves or water bags.

“Forget fire fighting tools, we don’t have enough to buy proper set for communication,” a forester said. “Most of the sets we use are old.”

Foresters said, without any annual budget allotted to procure fire fighting tools and equipment, even changing the batteries for their set was difficult.

Officials from forest fire management division said there are plans to replace the tree branches with proper firefighting tools, but because of the terrain, it is unrealistic.

“We can’t carry heavy equipment and walk for hours to battle fire,” an official said. “We have water back pumps, which are effective during incident to reduce the flame severity, and this equipment is supplied to all fire prone districts.”

Fighting forest fire is also considered a task for which one is unprepared.  Foresters rush to the area without much tools and end up at the site until the fire is contained, foraging meals and being trapped in smoke.

There have also been reports on casualties during such incidents.  At times, fighters lose their way in the forest.  Sometimes, situations turn out to be uncontrollable and so grim that foresters often find themselves praying for divine intervention.

Farmers in the localities often invoke deities to bring rain to contain forest fire.

Even Ranger Gyaltshen, who initially thought it would take days to contain the Debsiphakha fire, cannot help but believe divine intervention was what it took to contain the fire in two hours.

“The raging fire miraculously slowed down near a lam’s resident, and this helped us contain the fire,” he said.

By Tashi Dema

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