Forest fires ravage Himachal flora, fauna

By Vishal Gulati, IANS,

Shimla : Forest fires raging across the parched hills of Himachal Pradesh have scorched huge tracts of wooded areas and grasslands this summer. The state is struggling hard to contain the orange glow that is wiping out flora and fauna in the Himalayas.

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“Huge tracts of wooded areas have been scorched this summer due to an abnormal rise in temperatures and a prolonged dry spell. Till date, 19,109 hectares have been devoured by flames,” Forest Minister J.P. Nadda told IANS.

He said the loss of forest wealth has occurred on a big scale this time.

“Since the onset of summer, 1,537 forest fires have been reported, especially in the middle and low hills, nearly three times more than the previous year,” the minister said.

Avtar Singh, chief conservator (forest protection and fire control), said: “So far forest wealth worth Rs.23.9 million has been gutted. Last year it was just Rs.8 million.

“Most of the fire incidents have been reported from Sirmaur, Shimla, Kangra and Mandi districts, which have the maximum density of pine forests.”

He also attributed the rise in fire incidents to a change in climatic conditions.

“This winter saw less rain and snow in almost all districts. In May, the pre-monsoon showers were erratic which has drastically reduced the moisture content in the soil. The sudden rise in day temperature from April onwards has further triggered fire incidents,” the official said.

According to the meteorological office here, 11 of the 12 districts in Himachal Pradesh have received deficient rainfall during summer.

“The state has experienced a relatively warm and dry summer this year. The state has received 53 percent deficit rainfall,” said Manmohan Singh, director of the meteorological office.

The average maximum temperature of Shimla has been hovering around 30 degrees Celsius in June this year, whereas the long-term average for the month is 24 to 25 degrees.

Expressing concern over the raging fires, Forest Minister Nadda said: “This time even oak forests have suffered damage due to fire. Oak is generally considered fire resistant because of the thick moist ground cover. But the high temperature reduced the moisture content in the soil, making oak trees vulnerable.”

“The next few days will be crucial as more fires could break out. Certain areas in Shimla, Solan and Kangra districts saw good showers in the past 24 hours but Bilaspur, Una, Hamirpur, Sirmaur and Mandi district are still dry,” he added.

Himachal Pradesh has set up 150 rapid response teams to control forest fires.

According to the forest department, 22 percent or 8,267 sq km of the total forest area in the state is fire prone. A majority of the fires are reported from the pine forests as during summer the trees shed pine needles that are highly inflammable.

The pine forest is found up to an altitude of 5,500 feet.

Conservator Avtar Singh blamed human interference for most of the forest fires.

“Most of the fire incidents have been reported from areas that lie along major highways like Kalka-Shimla and Shimla-Bilaspur. Reckless throwing of cigarette butts has been the cause of fire in many cases,” he said.

“Similarly, villagers have the tendency to burn dry grass in private grazing pastures so that softer grass would appear after rains. We are educating the villagers that in most cases the fire from grasslands spreads to nearby forests.”

According to official records, 66 percent – 37,033 sq km of the total 55,643 sq km – of the Himalayan state is under forest cover.

The lush green valleys and snow capped mountains of the state are home to 36 percent of the country’s species of birds. Of the 1,228 species that have been reported in India, 447 are in this state alone.

Similarly, 77 species of mammals – from the spectacular snow leopard to the common Himalayan tahr, a type of wild goat – have been recorded by the Himachal State Council for Science, Technology and Environment in its biodiversity report.

The storehouse of biodiversity also supports 3,120 species of flowering plants, including 187 species of medicinal plants.