Summer is here; No men to fight forest fires yet!

Summer is here; No men to fight forest fires yet!

22 February 2012

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India — The forest department lacks personnel to tackle major fires, for the daily wage labourers have to be paid handsomely.

Weather pundits have already predicted a scorching summer. It’s not yet April but summer temperatures are already peaking in the state.

The State Forest Department is particularly concerned because of the danger of forest fires.

The forest department lacks personnel to tackle major fires, mainly because it lacks the funds to pay them. “We generally take people in the cadres of fire mazdoors, fire watchers and fire gangs.

They are taken on a temporary basis. We need to pay `382 per head going by the Minimum Wages Act. But we don’t have the funds to attract enough men,” an official in the forest department told Deccan Chronicle.

He says the department now has the services of only around 100 fire brigades to man the forest areas in the state including the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR), East and West included. Thirty per cent of the total land area of the state is covered by forests.

“We have about 11,125 of forest area and 100 men to tackle forest fires. It means one person has to tackle about 111 sq km. It’s humanly not possible,” the official said. “The government will have to address this issue immediately.”

Even if the government provides funds, the department may not be able to muster enough men for such a tough job. Daily wage labourers earn much more in other, less strenuous jobs, says another official.

“Construction labourers these days are paid anywhere between Rs 400 to Rs 600. Farm workers are also paid handsomely. So, who would want to roam inside the jungles braving wild animals and leech bites for a pittance of Rs 382?” the official asked.The threat of forest fires is very real.

“The devastating Kuttampuzha forest fire in 2009 was started by a man who himself died in it. So long as you have people who behave irresponsibly you can never rule out forest fires. So, it is important for us to deploy enough brigades,” the official pointed out.

He doesn’t feel that natural fires can occur in State forests. “In my 32 years service, I’ve never come across a natural fire here. All the forest fires reported here so far are man-made.”

Fire prevention methods include burning away materials such as dry leaves and grasses that can easily catch fire, and this is heavy manual work. If a fire breaks out, a counter fire is deliberately started to create a fire break.

“It’s nothing but setting fire to a particular stretch so that once the bigger forest fire reaches that area, it will die a natural death (since the material has already been burnt). But, to do all these things, we need people,” the official said.

Another method of containing forest fires is to go in for green burning. Unlike burning away the fire-prone materials, which is the usual process, green burning requires study of the terrain.

“In this method, we identify areas like grasslands, and fire-prone areas in deciduous and non-deciduous forests. Later, these areas are separated into small strips which are then set ablaze. It’s a controlled fire,” another official explained.

This method not only prevents forest fires, it also leads to the revival and healthy growth of plants and helps in the survival and successful breeding of herbivorous animals in the jungles.

The process is however easily misunderstood by the lay public and ignorant politicians. A forest official recalls the harsh words he had to hear from a former forest minister when he resorted to green burning.

“The media hyped it up and reported that the department was sleeping when a forest fire was raging. They didn’t know we were resorting to green burning as a preventive measure. Such is the awareness here,” he lamented.

Green burning can be resorted to occasionally but it cannot substitute for a properly manned and funded department that can patrol forests, prevent fires and tackle emergencies efficiently.

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