India — New Delhi, June 1: Dozens of forest fires are raging across Uttarakhand, forest and tourist industry officials said.
The fires have injected smoke into the mountain air and disappointed tourists at spots where the haze has obstructed scenic views, some of the officials added.
The Uttarakhand forest department has recorded more than 70 fires scattered across the state on Thursday evening. Forest officials say most fires appear to be agricultural fires that have run out of control and are burning across private or forestland.
A spell of heat and dry weather that has stretched over the past eight weeks and the seasonal abundance of pine needles and leaf litter found on forest floors are helping the fires spread, the officials said. The pine needles are rich in inflammable resin.
All these conditions are perfect for forest fires to spread, said Rahul, a district forest officer in Almora division, who said he uses only his first name. But more than half the fires are on private agricultural and civil land, he said.
Forest officials said almost all the fires appear to have been started by cultivators who believe that burning residual crop improves soil quality and allows grass to grow quickly.
But a gust of wind and dry leaf litter flying around can quickly push fires out of control, said Ram Gopal Verma, a district forest officer in Mussoorie, where he is trying to curb the spread of nearly 40 small and large blazes across 100 hectares.
If this dry spell continues, the fires may continue to spread, Verma said. Several hundreds of forest staff and local people are trying to control the fires scattered across forest divisions of Almora, Bageshwar, Badrinath, Garhwal, Kedarnath, Rudraprayag and Tehri, among others.
The owner of a retreat near Binsar sanctuary said tourists have had to return disappointed because haze from the fires has obstructed views. Weve had very poor visibility for several days now tourists have been unable to see what would have been majestic views of the mountains, said Prashant Bisht.
The fires themselves may be seen glowing in the distance during the nights from some popular tourist spots such as Camels Back Road near Mussoorie, said Anurag Pathak, an executive in one of the towns hotels.
The fire-fighting efforts typically involve removing pine-needles and leaf litter from the path of the fire or creating a fresh fire along a fire-line so that there is nothing left to burn, said Rahul. The simplest way is to use fire rakes to remove the pine needles, but it is the least effective, he said. In the mountainous terrain, clearing the forest floor is difficult.
But some forest officials say there is nothing alarming about the forest fires. Its a natural history of forests, its a reality we have to live with, said Raj Narayan Jha, conservator of forests in the states Yamuna circle.
Environmental scientists believe the predominance of pine trees introduced for their commercial value, as a source of resin and timber in the forests increases the risk of fires. The pine is hardier than many other trees and given a chance, it will spread, said Lalit Pandey, executive director of the Uttarakhand Environmental Education Trust, a non-government organisation. The oak on the other hand keeps the soil moist (and reduces the risk of fire).
But Pandey believes that forest fires may now appear increasingly troublesome because of an alienation of the local communities from the surrounding forests. Over time, local communities view the forestlands as government land, and not their own land.