India — KOZHIKODE: With summer heat fast picking up, the risk of fire breaking out in state’s forests is enormous. However, the forest department does not have enough funds to take preventive measures to protect the 11,309 sq km of our forest cover. Strangely, the department still fights fires in the old crude way — physically beating it out with leafy tree branches or shreds of discarded tyres tied to long poles.
Many incidents of forest fires have already been reported from several parts of Wayanad and Palakkad districts. Fifteen hectors of forest land, part of the Muthanga wildlife sanctuary, was gutted in a fire on Wednesday. Over 70 hectors of forest at Kollangode in Palakkad caught fire in the last two days.
According to D K Verma, chief conservator of forests (North), there have been 35 incidents of forest land (75 hectares) in northern districts catching fire this year.
As is obvious from its mode of fighting fire, the forest department lacks modern fire fighting gear as well as form and gas-based fire extinguishers. All terrain vehicles are also in short supply.
“There have been talks of acquiring a helicopter to boost the department’s fire fighting prowess. But the idea has not materialized because of the huge cost and technical overheads involved. The extremely difficult forest terrain is also a limiting factor. Forest fire is a natural calamity. To prevent it completely, large funds would be needed,” said Raja Raja Varma, principle chief conservator of forests.
The main fire prevention activity the department carries out before the annual `fire season’ (January to April), is preparing a 5.2 metre wide fire line by burning or removing all inflammable materials along the perimeter of the forest. But even this activity has been hampered by the rise in labour costs.
“The labour cost for laying one km of protective fire line used to be Rs 6,500. But this has gone up to Rs 13,000. That’s a 100 per cent increase; but the annual budget allocation for forest protection has risen only by 25%,” said K P Ouseph, assistant principal chief conservator of forests (Development).
According to Ouseph, the department only has a budget of Rs 8.75 crore for forest protection. With this money, it has to maintain forest stations, pay field staff salary, meet running expenses of vehicles as well as undertake fire prevention measures.
N K Sasidharan, chief conservator of forests, Eastern Circle, said 100% of forest fires in the state were man-made. Fire spreads from thrown cigarette butts, and activities involving hooch brewing and poaching. Certain activities by tribal people also cause fire. Then there are people who intentionally set forest areas on fire.
Causing forest fire is a punishable offence under the Kerala Forest Act and Wildlife Protection Act. Penalty ranges from one to five years in jail and fine from Rs 1,000 to 5,000 under the Forest Act; it can be three years in jail and a fine of up to Rs 25,000 under the Wildlife Protection Act.