Manpower crunch hampers forest fire fighting

OM ASTHA RAI

KATHMANDU, Nov 14: Even after acquiring fire-fighting equipment and developing a system that instantly detects wildfires and alerts local authorities, the government faces an uphill task in fighting forest fires due to manpower crunch.

Early this year, the government received fire-fighting equipment worth about Rs 460 million from the Japan government, which was originally due for 2010.

In addition, the government, with technical support from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), also developed an advanced system, which detects wildfires and alerts local government authorities as well as Community Forest User Group (CFUG) members within just a matter of few minutes. “This year, we are trying to develop a mechanism that alerts a wider group of concerned authorities,” said Pashupati Koirala, an officer at the Department of Forest (DoF).

However, despite such well-preparedness, it will still not be easy for the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation (MoFSC) to effectively protect forests from wildfires over the next few years as there is a lack of manpower required for controlling forest fires. MoFSC has not been able to fill hundreds of vacant posts of armed and unarmed forest guards for almost a decade now. About 500 out of the total 1,086 posts of armed forest guards have been lying vacant for a long time. Similarly, over 700 out of the total 2,756 posts of unarmed forest guards have also been lying vacant for years.

With such huge numbers of posts of armed and unarmed forest guards remaining vacant, it is yet to see whom the DoFSC will mobilize to use forest-fighting equipment. “Apart from armed and unarmed forest guards, we will also mobilize local people to fight forest fires,” said Gauri Shankar Timila, Deputy Director General of DoF.

However, Sundar Sharma, regional coordinator of the Southasia Wildland Fire Network of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), says it will be a huge risk to mobilize forest guards and local people without properly training them. “We have done well in terms of detecting and monitoring forest fires,” said Sharma. “But, we are still not capable of putting out forest fires as soon as they are detected. Due to lack of training, fire-fighting equipment could end up being useless.”

According to Ram Bhakta Malla, an officer at MoFSC, the Japan government has provided 120 sets of fire-fighting equipment, each set containing several tools like shovels and sprays. “If we distribute these tools to all District Forest Offices (DFOs), each will be entitled to a maximum of just two sets,” said Malla. “Two sets for one whole district will still be insufficient. In addition, we face serious challenges in finding people who can go into the woods and put out forest fires.”

In 2009, altogether 13 Nepal Army (NA) personnel were burnt to death when they were trying to put out a wildfire in Ramechhap district. Just two days later, six local villagers died while trying to save a community forest from a raging wildfire.

According to UNISDR-Southasia Wildland Fire Network, the damage caused by wildfires in 2009, not only to human lives but also natural resources, is the worst of recent history. That year, altogether 49 people perished in forest fires. And, about 146,000 hectares of forest were affected by fires.

Although proportions of damage by forest fires have never been the same since 2009, wildfires are still one of the major threats to forest, biodiversity and ecosystem. Fires affect thousands of hectares of forest every year, thereby destroying not only timber but also precious herbs and rare species. Forest fires are also one of the causes of deforestation and forest degradation, which contributes to about 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Published on 2013-11-15 22:31:00

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