Virtual tinderbox

Virtual tinderbox

18 February 2006

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Thanks to the prolonged dry spell this winter, Sikkim’s forests have become vulnerable to wildfire. Bijoy Gurung takes stock of the situation

Sikkim, India — Those superstitious and with a religious bent of mind would interpret it as the wrath of god. And those who rely on scientific reasoning and analytical approach would blame it on global warming and the failure of the western disturbances to show up in Sikkim.
Be it global warming or the rage of angels, Sikkim is witnessing an unprecedented prolonged cold dry spell. The snow and rainfall observed so often during winter have somehow forgotten to stop by this time.
Such a phenomenon has led to a serious problem: lack of moisture has rendered the grassy layer on the topsoil dry and inflammable. It has become ripe for the outbreak of fire turning the forests into virtual tinderboxes. In such a situation, it comes as no wonder that 29 cases of forest fire have been reported in December 2005 and January 2006. But what is surprising is that a majority of these infernos have been reported from non-traditional fire prone areas.
It has been found that the north and west districts of the state have borne the brunt of the damage caused by the fires whereas the traditionally fire prone East Sikkim is unscathed so far.
Starting from the first week of December, forest fires were reported in Dzongu in North District. Most of these blazed in steep rocky cliffs, destroying only ground grass and some insignificant flora. However, a massive fire swept across the grassy highlands of Lachung in North Sikkim at an altitude of 10,000 ft, engulfing more than 300 hectares of bio-diversity. The enormity of the fire led to the deployment of the Army and Indo-Tibet Border Police to aid the fire fighting squad consisting of forest officials, the Joint Forest Management Committee and locals. The only source of relief is that no major loss of wildlife or valuable flora has so far been reported.
However, the spurt of forest fire in all the four districts coupled with the prolonged dry spell has generated fear among the people – they have begun to believe that a huge, devastating wildfire is in the offing.
Should such a situation arise, the forest department has ensured that all fire-fighting mechanisms are mobilised and in a state of readiness for quick and efficient management.
Mr TR Poudyal, secretary, Forest Department, said: “Our department is not sitting idle; we are ready to fight any forest fire. All concerned persons have been mobilised to meet any kind of situation.”
Highlighting the measures adopted, Mr Poudyal said that awareness meetings with the Joint Forest Management Committees of the villages were regularly organised. Also, a sum of Rs 10,000 has been given to each traditionally prone village to help the people adopt more efficient measures against any eventuality of fire outbreak. Patrolling vehicles have been provided to range officers and additional fire-watchers have been deputed. “Wireless communications facilities have also been strengthened,” he added.
Apart from distributing pamphlets with a view to spread awareness on forest fires, Mr Poudyal said networking has also been established with the police and fire-fighting departments. Other innovative measures are being contemplated, he informed.
The forest fires so far have not caused any substantial damage to the flora and fauna of the state, said the forest department secretary, adding that all the fires were of minor impact and mostly originated in rocky cliffs with some ground grass cover. One could therefore call them cliff fires, opined Mr Poudyal.
Speaking on the budget involved in combating such crises, Mr Poudyal said there was a provision of Central funds and that the state too has reserved some money. “Funds are not a constraint – the present allocation by the state is satisfactory,” he said.
As far as manpower is concerned, Mr Poudyal said it is not the responsibility of the forest department alone to protect forests. “It is the duty of every citizen of the country to protect national property like forests. That is why whenever a forest fire breaks out, people from all sections of society including Army personnel come forward to counter the crisis,” he observed.
With the forest department claiming to be well prepared should a major wildfire break out, the rich flora and fauna of Sikkim may at last breathe a sigh of relief.


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