Where fighting forest fires takes a day of travel — by road, boat, trek

16 April 2021

Published by https://indianexpress.com/

INDIA –  In the remote forests of Odisha’s Malkangiri, fires have only been sporadic and more or less under control. But for foresters engaged in the Chitrakonda range, fire-fighting has been challenging, to say the least.

A typical day for Saroj Ghadei, 36, a forest guard in Malkangiri, that borders Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, begins with the identification of a fire-spot. On Tuesday, he began his onward journey, along with five others, to the Jantri section to douse a fire. He first covered a 32-km stretch on the road. This was followed by a nearly five-hour boat ride through the Balimela Reservoir. The motorboat was recently made available by the Forest Department through its mobility and patrolling fund, to ease commuting between the two sides of the reservoir.

A long trek on foot, till it was almost dark, brought them to the fire point.

“Fire incidents have increased manifold this year — both due to natural as well as anthropogenic reasons. In April, we had calls everyday to douse fire. But for us to reach these remote ranges, it takes an entire day. We spend a whole day traveling and are able to attend to only one fire point during one journey,” said Ghadei, who has been working as a forest guard in the Chitrakonda range for the last three years.

For Ghadei and his team, carrying well-equipped machinery like an air blower to douse fire at higher altitudes of over 1,000 metres, makes the journey laborious. “If the fire points are close by, we can attend to them using our equipment, but most of these points are on higher altitudes. We trek with minimum baggage for more efficiency,” another forester said.

In the absence of these, the fire-fighting team resorts to beating branches to cut off air supply and douse the fire. As a part of their minimal baggage, they carry dry snacks and drink water from the streams across the forest. “In these remote locations at such higher elevation, there are hardly a handful of families, that too scattered over a large patch. At times, it is difficult to get help if needed,” Ghadei said.

The reasons for the increase in the incidents of forest fires in Malkangiri are similar across the state, with long dry spells without rains and higher temperatures. “We had anticipated major fire incidents between April 10 and April 17, but the most incidents were reported in the first week of the month itself. The situation is now under control. We have tried to keep our foresters close to the range in the villages, but connectivity (mobile network) is a major issue. So they stay in fringe areas where they can use the real-time app to spot fire points,” Divisional Forest Officer, Malkangiri, Pradeep Mirase said.

The forest department had also started awareness programmes at villages and roped in locals to help in the exercise.

Apart from the high temperatures, the practice of slash and burn cultivation, and influx of villagers from nearby districts, who tend to cook and eat in the forest areas during their journey to celebrate the local festival Bada Jatra, also contributed towards the forest fires. While the forests of Malkangiri do not boast of a rich wildlife presence, they have abundant teak wood trees and medicinal plants.

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