Progress in detection, not in response

Progress in detection, not in response

09 April 2014

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Nepal — In April 2009, a fire that tore through a community forest of Ramechhap district claimed the lives of as many as 13 Nepal Army (NA) soldiers. They had been mobilized to contain the fire after it began spreading toward the Ramechhap District Hospital. As soon as the soldiers entered into the forest, the wind started blowing in the opposite direction, leaving no room for them to flee anywhere. The charred remains of all the soldiers were found later.

In Nepal, this is the most shocking tragedy caused by wildfires in the last five years. Since 2009, there have not been so many deaths in a single wildfire incident. However, wildfires continue to claim human lives every year. This year alone, as many as seven people have already been killed by wildfires as of now. And, these are just reported deaths. More people might have been killed or injured by wildfires in far-flung forest areas.

Loss of human lives is just one dimension of damage caused by wildfires. Apart from human deaths, wild animals, biodiversity, medicinal herbs and forestry products worth millions of rupees also face threats from wildfires in Nepal every year.

By a conservative estimate, forestry products worth about Rs 440 million were reduced to ashes in 2012,” says Sundar Sharma, coordinator of Regional South Asia Wildland Fire Network, which is a component of the UN-ISDR (International Strategy for Disaster Reduction). “If wildfires cause such a huge financial damage in just one year, how much money will we lose in ten years?”

Between 2009 and 2012, altogether 63 people have been killed and 58 injured by wildfires, according to the UN-ISDR´s South Asia network. In this same period, 590 houses and 49 sheds have been gutted by wildfires. “Due to lack of immediate interventions, wildfires at times spread to nearby human settlements and damage private properties, too,” explains Sharma.

In a move to control wildfires, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has developed a system to detect active forest fires. Through satellites, a station set up by the ICIMOD in Kathmandu not only traces active wildfires but also posts detailed information about them on its website. At the same time, it automatically sends fire alerts through emails and SMSes to forest authorities and key members of Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs). “We are trying to send active fire alerts to a wider group of stakeholders,” says Pashupati Koirala, an officer at the Department of Forest (DoF).

However, despite making a remarkable progress in detection of active fires, controlling wildfires is still proving to be an uphill task in Nepal. Lack of human resources, skills and equipments combined with geographical difficulty have made it almost impossible for forest authorities as well as CFUG members to effectively deal with wildfires.

“We get regular fire alerts,” says Apsara Chapagain, president of Federation of Community Forest Users´ Group Nepal (FECOFUN). “But these alerts are virtually useless. What is the use of such alerts if you can do nothing to control wildfires? At times, forest fire rages in front of our own eyes but we feel helpless.”

According to Chapagain, members of some 15 CFUGs were trained to fight forest fires under a project two years ago. “They were also provided with forest fighting tools,” says she. “The trained and well-equipped CFUG members are pretty good at fighting wildfires. But how can we expect to fight wildfires across the country by handing equipments to such a few people?”

Just last year, the Japan government provided 53 vehicles and 120 sets of fire fighting tools to the Nepal government. However, the District Forest Offices (DFOs) lack manpower to use those tools. About 500 of the total 1,086 posts of armed forest guards and over 700 of the total 2,756 posts of unarmed forest guards have been lying vacant for a long time. “In forestry sector, we just have hakims (bosses) but not those staff who are ready to work on the field,” says a forest official. “In such condition, it is possible that fire fighting equipments will be lying unused.”

Community´s role is important
Sundar Sharma
Coordinator, Regional South Asia Wildland Fire Network

How serious is the threat of wildfire in Nepal?
It is a big threat. It is a threat to human lives and properties, wild animals, biodiversity, forestry products including medicinal herbs. At times, wildfires spread to human settlements and reduce properties to ashes. Even people get killed in wildfires. This year alone, as many as seven people have died in wildfires. Forestry products worth millions of rupees are gutted by wildfires every year. Its damage is beyond measurement.

Some people, including forestry experts, argue that wildfires are part of a natural process and good for growth of forests. Do you agree?
Yes, I do. But it is good only if wildfires are managed with prescription. I mean we need controlled burning to reduce the forest fuel. Wildfires always burn down old, drying and decaying plants, bushes, leaves and twigs, creating space for new plants to germinate and grow. Remains of the burnt plants are like fertilizers and make the soil more fertile. However, wildfires are not properly managed in Nepal. In dry season, you can see wildfires everywhere, even in national parks inhabited by endangered species such as tigers and rhinos. If a rhino is killed by wildfires, how much loss will we incur?

How serious are forest authorities about wildfire management?
Not really. The Forest Ministry lacks dedicated institution and human resources capable of dealing with wildfires. It is not able to even retain a few available experts. In 2010, the government came up with a national strategy for forest fire management. In its strategy, the government has stated that it will develop an institution to tackle the epidemic of wildfires. But no progress has been made so far in that direction. There is no specific section or authority at the Forest Ministry for forest fire management. Why does the Forest Ministry not set up a unit for fighting forest fires? Forest fires can be both cause and effect of climate change. So, if we develop a strong institution within the Forest Ministry to manage wildfires, it will not be difficult for us to find financial support from international donor agencies working in the sector of climate change.

How capable are the District Forest Offices (DFOs) in dealing with wildfires?
Individually, we have capable forest officials who have the willingness to do something. But our institutions are weak. They are constrained by the lack of financial and technical resources. They do not have adequate and appropriate firefighting tools and skilled human resources to manage forest fires. In such a situation all they can do is pray for Indra (the rain god). Quite often, wildfires continue to spread unless they are extinguished by rains. They are helpless.

So, in present situation, what could be the best way to combat wildfires?
Community-based forest fire management (CBFIM) could be the best option. Firstly, we have nearly 18,000 Community Forest Users´ Groups (CFUGs) in Nepal. Similarly, there are several other community-based cultural groups. They can be mobilized for forest fire management. But they cannot always work voluntarily. If they are to be mobilized in a sustainable way, there must be a livelihood option for them. Secondly, for this, the government has to develop a multi-year fire management program for a long run. As part of my research, I had implemented this concept in Sundar Community Forest of Makwanpur district with support from the German Foreign Office and the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC). I am proud to say that the government has incorporated this concept into the policy and the government and its development partners have also incorporated the learning of community-based forest fire management program of Makawnpur in programs like Tarai Arch Landscape (TAL) project and Multistakeholder Forestry Programme (MSFP) in their project areas and beyond.

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