Ill-equipped authorities seek divine intervention as forest fires rage

Ill-equipped authorities seek divine intervention as forest fires rage

10 April 2013

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Nepal — KATHMANDU – Within 15 minutes after a NASA satellite detected two forest fires inside the Banke National Park (BNP) area on Friday, the Department of Forest (DoF) informed Jhamak Bahadur Karki, the outgoing BNP warden, about both wildfires through SMS alerts.

But, when forest fires were rapidly spreading in BNP area, Karki was in Kathmandu. After attending a conference of wardens in Kathmandu, Karki is now preparing to leave for his new duty station — the Chitwan National Park (CNP). And, Barna Bahadur Thapa, who is replacing Karki as the BNP warden, was yet to leave for Banke district until Friday.

While both Karki and Thapa were away from the BNP, other BNP authorities were blissfully oblivious of the wildfires that were destroying forests in Mahadevpuri VDC-7 and Kachanapur VDC-3 of Banke district.

“I have no idea which parts of our park are burning,” said assistant BNP warden Birendra Kandel. “None of us, except for the warden, gets forest fire alerts. As our outgoing warden is on leave and the new boss is yet to join duty, we are clueless about forest fires.”

Thanks to the lack of quick and effective intervention by the BNP officials, both fires were raging through fires until Friday evening. “No efforts were made by the BNP officials to control fires in Banke,” Apsara Chapagain, President of Federation of Community Forest User Groups (FECOFUN), said. “In Kachanapur, the locals tried to douse the fire, but to no avail. In Mahadevpur, not even the locals were able to reach the fire-affected area.”

What happened in Banke on Friday is definitely not a one-off case. The DoF and the ICIMOD sends dozens of SMS and email alerts to wardens, District Forest Officers (DFOs) and district-based focal persons of FECOFUN. But, hardly a few of them attempt to control wildfires after receiving fire notifications.

Some DFOs and wardens no longer use the cell phones that would be contacted by the DoF for fire notifications. “I also do not regularly use the cell phone number, which was used by the DoF for contact for sending fire alerts,” said Tirtha Raj Joshi, who is now DFO in Banke district. “Even if I get regular fire alerts, I cannot do much to control wildfires.”

According to Joshi, when he gets fire alerts, he just instructs local range post officials in the fire-affected areas to assess damage. “When they report to me, I will send the report to the DoF,” said he. “We are so ill-equipped and understaffed that we cannot do anything to control forest fires.”

“Controlling forest fires is a tall order,” said Tulasi Sharma, planning officer at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), who had also served as BNP warden in the past. “All that we have now as fire-fighting tools are a few sickles. We can just cut green leaves off the trees and cover fires. But, when forest fires spread around immensely, then all we can do is to pray and wait for rains.”

“The government can do a lot to protect our forests from wildfires by using its wide network, but it has done virtually nothing,” said Sundar Prasad Sharma, Coordinator of Regional South Asia Wildland Fire Network (RSAWFN). “There is a provision that all Community Forest Users´ Group (CFUGs) should allocate 30 per cent of their incomes for protection of forests. If the government forms and trains volunteer groups to control forest fires in all CFUGs by strictly implementing this provision, local communities will themselves be capable of fighting wildfires.”

Wildfire is a serious threat to conservation of forests in Nepal. Fires destroy thousands of hectares of forests every year. According to the Nepal Forest Fire Management Chapter (NFMC) of the RSAWFN, at least 238,829 hectares of forests were destroyed by wildfires in 2009-2010 alone. “This is just a compilation of reported damages by forest fires,” said Sharma. “Forest fires also kill many wild animals, some of them rare and extinct, apart from destroying our biodiversity.”

Not only wild animals, local people have also been killed by forest fires. According to NFMC, as many as 61 people have died in forest fires in the last four years (2009-2012). “It is a burning issue, literally,” said Sharma. “Nepal has done a commendable job as far as detection and monitoring of forest fires is concerned. But, when it comes to responding to the detected wild fires, its contribution is almost nil.”

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