Why Indian and Nepalese Wildfires Worry Scientists

Wildfire in Ranikhet district, Uttarakhand

Wildfires in some parts of northern India were the strongest in a year and a half

The lush mountains in the background usually make the famous Nainital Lake in Uttarakhand, northern India, more beautiful.

However, for several weeks, the haze of wildfires hid the mountains and the beauty of the lake was visibly diminished.

“There can be a haze from this side of the lake where I live,” said Shekar Patak, a forest history expert in the area.

“Not only the pine trees, which are prone to fire, but also the oak forest is burning, so it is a difficult situation.”

Locals in the areas most affected by the wildfire told the BBC that they haven’t slept at night lately.

“Wake up in the middle of the night and check around the forest to make sure the fire isn’t approaching,” said Kedar Avani of the village of Banaa in the Pithoragarh district, the easternmost Himalayan district of the state. ..

“I’m worried that the haystacks and grass that were stored for livestock were eaten up by the fire and now the house is burned down.”

Mr. Abani said the fire was so strong that he could feel the heat even at a distance of 20 meters. “There is no way we can get them out,” he said.

After a helicopter drops water on a wildfire, it sucks a big wave from the wildfire

Scientists say the Uttarakhand wildfire has led to record carbon emissions since 2003

Record wildfires

Scientists say wildfires in parts of northern India and adjacent Nepal are the strongest in the last 15 years. The European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS) said: Uttarakhand wildfire released about 0.2 megatons of carbon Record since 2003 in the past month.

Based on satellite photo analysis, Nepal estimated that it released nearly 18 megatons of carbon during the same period. This is the highest since 2016, when it released 27 megatons of carbon.

“This shows the strength of the fire in the area and I’m very worried,” said Mark Parrington, senior scientist at CAMS.

Fires in Uttarakhand and Nepal reportedly killed nearly 20 people. Official figures have not yet been released, but it is believed that hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest have been destroyed.

Map showing the number of wildfires

Dehradun is the capital of Uttarakhand

At some point last month, about 500 wildfires were recorded in Nepal. Its air quality has remained at dangerous levels for the past few days.

Some of the Himalayan country’s forests and national parks are adjacent to Indian forests and protected areas. This means that the fire can spread in both directions.

Long dry spell

In many parts of North India and Nepal, long-term dryness has been seen in recent months, leaving forests “crater-dried”.

Residents of Baglung district in western Nepal fight wildfires

Communities play an important role in the fight against forest fires

“It hasn’t rained or snowed in the last few months,” Pasak said. “That’s why even the oak forest is burned out. The ground on which they stand is completely dry.”

Also, people in the region are worried that wildfires usually peak in May. Fear that the worst hasn’t come yet.

Scientists say climate change cannot be blamed directly on forest fires, but it is increasing the aridness of the region.

Officials in Uttarakhand and Nepal have stated that burning stubble on farmland adjacent to the forest caused several wildfires.

But experts say the problem goes beyond the weather and the burning of stubble.

Vijendra Ajnabi, a natural resources management expert at Oxfam based in Chatisgar, India, said:

“Wildfires are not yet a priority, so we usually don’t hear this being discussed in Congress.”

Isn’t a forest fire a natural disaster?

Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is covered in haze

The air quality in this area, especially Nepal, is at risk mainly due to wildfires.

India’s National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) does not recognize forest fires as a natural disaster.

On the company’s website, cyclones, tsunamis, heat waves, landslides, floods and earthquakes fall into such categories.

An analysis conducted by the Indian Forest Survey in 2019 showed that nearly 36% of the country’s forests are prone to fire and nearly one-third are extremely vulnerable.

“The reason we do not list forest fires as natural disasters is that in India most of these fires are man-made, as they are intentionally caused primarily by people for agricultural purposes. [man-made] Hazard. ” Krishna Vazza, a member of NDMA, said.

“But we recognize that wildfires are becoming a serious danger, so we are working with forestry agencies and other agencies in all states to address this issue. . “

Firefighting flaws

Based on the findings of the Permanent Fire Advisory Board, NDMA in the past has highlighted serious shortcomings in national fire services.

The Commission found that there was a shortage of fire trucks and rescue vehicles of more than 80%, and the number of firefighters in the country was 96% less than needed.

DK Shami, an advisor and senior official to the Indian Fire Department, said:

“At that time, there were about 50,000 firefighters, but now there are more than 75,000.”

With a significant increase in budget allocation compared to the past, the government is providing the state with Rs 50 billion ($ 670 million) to fire departments between this year and 2026. This is five times what was normally offered in the past. “

However, field experts say it has helped little in the fight against wildfires in many places.

“While the fires are getting more intense, there is little government preparation,” said Aniludda Jadeya, an environmental activist in the Kumaon district of Uttarakhand.

“Our forests are very large and the number of staff in the government’s forest sector is very limited. Therefore, in the event of a serious wildfire, they can do almost nothing.”

National Disaster Response Force staff quelling wildfires in Uttarakhand

Given the risk of fire facing Indian forests, the number of Indian firefighters is inadequate.

Nepalese forest experts say the same thing.

“We’ve heard about millions of dollars the country receives from foreign donors as climate funding, but nothing has been spent on preventing and fighting forest fires,” said Barati Pasak, chairman of the Nepalese Community Forestry Users Federation. I haven’t. “

“We were globally recognized as a success story for community forestry, but now wildfires can cancel it all,” she added.

Nepalese government officials said they were doing everything they could.

“We are doing our best with limited resources, but fires are deliberately occurring in difficult areas such as mountain slopes and dry weather,” said Prakash Ramsal, a spokesman for the Ministry of Forests of Nepal. The people who caused the fire did not help. “

“We have all seen how difficult it is to contain forest fires, even in developed countries.”

Community support

Experts have said that communities living in or near the forest can greatly help extinguish the fire, but that is not happening.

“It’s because of the serious lack of trust between these communities and the state’s forestry administration,” Pathak said.

“Many indigenous communities want their rights, including access to forest resources, to be respected, and therefore there is tension between them and forest administration, which is clearly in the fight against forest fires. It’s influential. “

Communities in various forest areas of India have protested, claiming that their rights to forest areas and other resources have been undermined and violated by conservation policies.

Authorities say they protect the forest in accordance with the law.

“The authorities are usually responsible [for forest fires] Despite being a community, we can actually work with these locals to prevent fires, “said Ajnabi.