25January 2005 – Winters in Bhutan are notorious for wild fires thatdestroy hundreds of acres of forest every year. Despite improved basic firefighting techniques the flames aided by strong winds have always got the upperhand.
This winter is no different. Already, over 100 acres offorestland under Thimphu and Paro dzongkhags have been destroyed by fire sinceDecember 2004.
The recent wild fire on January 18 near Samarzhingkha,Thimphu, destroyed about 30 acres of forest in a couple of hours.
Members of the armed forces fighting fire at Samarzingkha
Who started the fire was not known but forest officialsare certain that it ignited from someones lack of civic sense to at least bemore careful during the dry season. We risk our lives to save our preciousforest resources, said the Thimphu Assistant Dzongkhag Forest Officer, GalayWangchuk.
According to Galay Wangchuk, the fire fighterscomprising of forest staff and the three armed forces lack special equipment toaid them battle the flames that spread fast over the dry hillsides.
All we have is a helmet and a pair of gloves, hesaid. The fire fighters use the green branches of trees to beat the flames andcut fire lines to prevent the flames from spreading. Prescribed burning orfighting fire with fire is another technique that is used. But one has towatch out for the wind because sometimes it blows the flames right into yourface, said a forest official.
But what irks forest officials is the apathy of thepublic in helping to control forest fires.
A lot of people come to our office for kidu onforest produce but there are very few people who actually come forward to helpus during forest fires, said the Director of the Department of ForestryServices.
Despite the frequent fires, statistics show a declinein fire incidences in recent years.
There were 112 wild fire cases in 1998 while in 2003there were only 39, the lowest in almost 10 years.
Among other reasons, a study, Achieving Forest FirePrevention in Bhutan, undertaken by the New South Wales Rural Fire Services,Australia, indicates that the awareness programmes initiated by the Departmentof Forest have helped in bringing down the number of fire incidences around thecountry.
However, the study also reveals that the awarenessprogrammes were not widespread throughout the Kingdom. Those implemented were onan ad-hoc basis and hence the need for a systematic and a structured process ofawareness. Reporting of fire incidences was also poor or late because of a lackof a proper communication system, especially in the rural areas. Sometimes therewas no reporting at all.
The deliberate burning of forest by farmers todiscourage wild animals from entering the villages and ruining their crop was amajor concern according to the study.
Farmers in the lemongrass oil business in Trashigangand Mongar also deliberately burnt lemon grass stubs to have a better harvestthe next season. It is believed that this is one of the main reasons why Mongarand Trashigang had one of the highest cases of forest fires in thecountry.
According to records maintained by the Social ForestryDivision, about 11,800 acres of forest land (90 fire cases) was destroyed inTrashigang and about 32,000 acres (105 fire cases) in Mongar from 1997 to2004.
Other causes of fire have been attributed toagricultural burning (tseri), camping fire escapes and children playing withmatches and some limited number of cases caused by roadside works like meltingof bitumen.
Although Bhutan boasts a 72.5 percent forest cover, theAfforestation Master Plan shows that the actual forestland may be less than 60percent.
The Master Plan shows that the demand on forestresources was rising while regeneration (natural and through re-plantation)remained low.
From 2003 to 2004, the highest number of fire cases wasdetected in Trashigang which destroyed more than 1000 acres of forest. Thimphuhad six fire cases and lost about 600 acres of forest while Mongar lost about380 acres in 7 fire incidences. In all, Bhutan had 39 fire cases and lost about2511 acres of forests.