As large parts of Uttarakhand’s forests were engulfed by fire on Saturday, three teams of the National Disaster Response Force were deployed for Kumaon and Garhwal regions and 6,000 forest staff struggled to contain the flames sweeping the State.
The emergency in many districts is now visible from several distant areas, as forests continue to burn, 10 days after the first fires were seen.
Many areas are covered by smoke from burning forests.
In response to the growing crisis, especially in Pauri, Nainital, Tehri and Dehradun districts, the government has deployed NDRF teams and raised the number of forest officials from 3,000 to 6,000, Uttarakhand Chief Secretary Shatrughna Singh told The Hindu. Two IAF helicopters will join the operations in Kumaon and Garhwal from Sunday, he said.
“Mi-17 chopper of the IAF has been stationed near Bhimtal and it will spray water from the Bhimtal lake,” Mr Singh said.
Forest under fire in Uttarakhand's Barkot region. Photo: Virender Negi
A team of experts from the Centre headed by executive director of National Disaster Management Authority, Santosh Kumar, will be in Dehradun to guide the State authorities, the Chief Secretary added.
Some 922 instances of fire have fanned across 2,000 hectares of forest so far, Uttarakhand Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Rajendra Kumar said.
Five people from Kumaon and Garhwal regions have succumbed to forest fires in the State since February. Jagdish Joshi (53) a forest guard, was hospitalised for smoke inhalation.
Area under forest fire doubles this season
Official data for the past three years for Uttarakhand show that the area under forest fires has more than doubled this year. In 2014, it was 384.5 hectares while in 2015, it was 930.33 hectares. This year it has already touched 2,000 hectares.
Mr. Rajendra Kumar said the five deaths could not be directly attributed to fires. “Some four or five deaths have taken place in the vicinity of fires, but there is no direct connection,” he said. At least ten people have been injured and seven animals killed.
Van Panchayats and local residents have been engaged and a 24-hour helpline set up.
Uttarakhand has been under a dry spell this year with either scanty or no rainfall in most areas. “High temperature with no moisture was the major reason for fires this year,” Mr. Kumar said, adding that intense winds had exacerbated the situation.
Widespread fire could also be attributed to the presence of pine trees in18 per cent of forests here.
“Since the British period there has been a monoculture of pine trees in many forests of Uttarakhand. Their leaves can catch fire easily,” Vinod Pande, a retired forest officer said.
While careless residents and visitors could have caused some fires, illicit timber trade too is responsible. “Major illicit timber trade relies on pine forests since it is used for construction,” Mr. Pande said.