SETI DEVI, Kathmandu (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For Hira Pulami, seeing the charred trunks of the precious pine trees he grew up with is a cause of lingering pain. But he is hopeful that Nepal’s new forest-fire detection system will help avoid a repeat of the recent catastrophe that struck his village.
“I myself planted with these hands many of the pine trees that burned down during the raging forest fire in Seti Devi last month,” he said sorrowfully.
Seti Devi is a scenic mountain village, 16 km southwest of Kathmandu. Popular with tourists, it is renowned for its ancient pine trees.
Pulami was asleep when the blaze erupted in his village on the night of April 14, proceeding to burn for almost 36 hours.
Army troops, backed by police and fire fighters, arrived some 21 hours after the fire began. The delay was caused by the village’s location on a steep mountain without proper road access, the 40-year-old said.
Pointing to a large area that now looks like unsightly wasteland, Pulami said that, after engulfing most of the tall pines in Seti Devi, the wildfire rapidly swept through the forests in the adjoining villages of Sheshnarayan and Chhaimale.
“Local people used every resource at hand to douse it, but in vain, for it was too fierce to be tamed by just a few of us,” he recalled.
Besides thousands of decades-old pine trees, precious medicinal herbs were also reduced to cinders in just a few hours, Pulami said, his voice choking with grief.
1,000 FIRES SINCE MARCH
Police deputy superintendent Guru Bishnu Kafle told Kantipur News TV on April 22 that, since the dry season started in the third week of March, Nepal had already witnessed forest fires in over 1,000 places, destroying both community and public forests and protected areas including the Chitwan National Park, Parsa Wildlife Reserve and Annapurna Conservation Area.
The forest fire season continues until mid-August, but official records indicate that about 60 percent of wildfires occur in March and April, Kafle said.
The major causes include mismanagement of the ‘slash and burn’ agriculture method in forests, lack of community awareness programmes, careless use of flammable substances, and the absence of plans to demarcate firebreaks.
Sundar Sharma, coordinator of the UNISDR-Regional South Asia Wildfire Network , said preparedness and response mechanisms for forest fires are weak in Nepal.
According to the Nepal forest fire management chapter of the network, around 239,000 hectares of forests were destroyed by wildfires in 2009-2010 alone.
Temperatures are rising in mountain areas close to Kathmandu, largely due to increased deforestation, as trees are cut down for fuel in the winter and land is cleared for urbanisation, which also hikes vehicle emissions and timber demand. The risk of forest fires is growing in line with these trends.
Pulami said forest fires have become more frequent as the local climate has warmed over the past decade. In the past, the winter cold would last until late April, but now warm days are occurring as early as mid-March, he explained.
“The latest forest fire incident in my village was the fourth in the most recent three years of my 40-year life,” he said.
So he was glad to learn that through a new SMS service that sends alerts to mobile phones, he can now be informed of a wildfire incident within just 20 minutes of its detection.
“(This) can really help us tackle a forest fire…before it spreads far and wide,” he said with hope. “Wildfires are easily controllable when on a smaller scale.”
The “Forest Fire Detection and Monitoring System” was launched in March 2012 as a pilot programme in a few of Nepal’s forest districts by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Technical support has been provided by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with funding from USAID, under the multi-million-dollar SERVIR-Himalaya initiative.
The Nepalese system uses data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA satellites, combined with geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing (RE) technologies, to carry out automated data acquisition, processing and reporting on exact fire locations.
After the successful test phase, ICIMOD rolled out the system in late April in collaboration with the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation in all of Nepal’s 75 districts, as part of national climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.
Sudip Pradhan, leader of the project at ICIMOD, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the system now sends forest fire alerts via SMS and email to 200 subscribers, who include district forest officials and local members of the Federation of Community Forest Users’ Group Nepal.
“In view of the country’s large area, satellite data have proved highly useful for near real-time fire detection, monitoring and assessment of burnt areas,” he said.
The system, planted on the roof of ICIMOD headquarters, receives images directly from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. These are processed by ICIMOD, and if fires are detected, alerts are sent out to subscribers in just 15 to 20 minutes to help them respond quickly, Pradhan explained.
Forest Management Officer Pashupati Koirala said the system would help his colleagues across the country, as well as the wardens of protected areas.
“Once the forest officers get fire alerts, they pass on the information to forest range posts and coordinate with the community forest user groups,” Koirala said. “This is really helping us overcome forest fires very soon after they break out, to stave off loss of life, as well as damage to forest resources and public properties.”
The fire notifications are particularly useful as they provide geographical details such as longitude, latitude, district and village names, and even ward numbers, he added.
Pramod Kumar Aggarwal, South Asia programme leader for the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), warned that the success of the new system will depend on how forest officials on the ground react to the alerts.
“Certainly such an information system is a key to efficient protection of forest resources, and further progress can be achieved through timely and efficient response to the forest fire detection and monitoring,” he said.
ICIMOD’s Pradhan said the centre has chalked out a plan to share the system with other South Asian countries. Collaboration is underway with Bhutan and Bangladesh, and the technology will be soon transferred to them, he said.
Staff in forest departments and others concerned will also receive hands-on training to be able to run the fire detection systems effectively, he added.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Islamabad.