Fire in the hills

Fire in the hills

16 April 2013

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Nepal — Since the onset of the dry and windy season in March, forest fires have been detected in more than a thousand areas across the country. On Friday, a wildfire destroyed 350 hectares of forest in Gulmi district. Another forest fire at Taksindu in Solukhumbu district, which had been raging since Thursday, was only taken under control three days later. As of Sunday afternoon, a wildfire at Triyuga Municipality in Udaypur district was still going strong. Similarly, this time last year saw 86 wildfires break out over a span of 24 hours in various hill regions, and the destruction of over 800 hectares of public and community forests.

Forest fires have become a perennial problem for Nepal, especially during the premonsoon dry season. The period between the onset of the monsoon and after the end of winter is a dangerous time for forests as the rising heat of the summer can spark flames in dry wood and shrubs. The summer winds only facilitate the spread of the flames, resulting in wildfires that devastate hundreds of hectares of forests. Not only do these wildfires cause massive loss of timber and non-timber forest resources but also bring death to a variety of fauna that reside in the forests and destroy the habitats of many others. Although human deaths have decreased in the last few years, falling from 49 in 2009 to two in 2012, the loss of national and community forests continues unabated. Compounding problems, awareness among locals, both for prevention and response, is greatly lacking. According to the Federation of Community Forestry Users’ Group (FECOFUN), only about a dozen community forest user groups, from among 16,000, are properly trained and equipped to deal with wildfires.

Despite the high cost that Nepal pays every year due to forest fires, adequate preparedness and response measures are still lacking. In 2010, the government did come up with a Forest Fire Management Strategy but, like so many other government intiatives, it remains confined to paper. The Disaster Risk Reduction Strategy, which does not list wildfires as a natural disaster but includes preparation and prevention measures, is similarly pending endorsement at the Cabinet. In a welcome move, the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, in coordination with the Integrated Centre for Mountain Development (ICIMOD), launched a system for the detection and monitoring of forest fires on Friday. It is equally important for local communities to be trained and equipped to respond to forest fires. Given the havoc these wildfires wreak every year, proper methods of prevention and response, both at the local and central levels, are long overdue.

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