The Greed for Timber, and Climate Change, Have Made Himalayan Foothills a Tinderbox

Unlike many other disasters, the toll of this one is ecological. To prevent fires in the future, it is imperative that ‘fire-lines’ are cut in the hills, apart from punishment to those who set off fires.

Fires near Nainital. Credit: Sanjay Chatterji

Fires near Nainital. Credit: Sanjay Chatterji

Bhimtal (Uttarakhand): You fight a forest fire with fire. Stopping a forest fire is no easy task. Locals use rakes, blankets, anything they can get their hands on, to cut a fire line around the fire. They then set fire to the dry grass within the line, burning up everything combustible – which is everything on the ground in the May heat. This is what locals in Sat Taal near Nainital in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand have been doing, for the past few days.

More than a week ago, residents of Sat Taal heard of the hills being on fire. Others have reported that fires started three weeks ago in various parts of Kumaon and Garhwal in the state. There are almost 400 fires in the Himalayan foothills currently, which have killed five people and finished off at least 19 square kilometres of forest. The National Disaster Response Force has been deployed to put out the fires.

The timber mafia, and ordinary folks, are known to illegally set fire in the Himalayan foothills, to fell trees, almost annually. But this year’s scale is that of an emergency. While the fires show us the worst side of human greed or negligence – with mostly animals and forests being gutted – the uncontrollable nature of this year’s blaze also points to the environmental and micro-climatic changes in the lower Himalayas.

“The fires are set off usually by locals who want to conceal illegal tree cutting,” a divisional forest officer told The Wire. “Usually the forests stop burning after a point. This year, it’s different, and uncontrollable.”

A thick smog has settled over the area – and residents of Naukuchiatal, Bhimtal and Saat Taal find their throats full of smog. Some 250 kilometres away, the hills of Chamoli are burning too. Locals have reported animals fleeing the fires, many getting burnt alive, unable to escape. Rows of nightjars, a local bird, are on the road, trying to save themselves. The scale of destruction is akin to the November 2015  Indonesian forest fires which were reportedly set off by timber mafia, destroying broad swathes of ancient forest, burning Orangutans, and triggering off massive air pollution.

NASA satellite imagery of the fires. The areas marked red are "fires and thermal anomalies". Credit: NASA

NASA satellite imagery of the fires. The areas marked red are “fires and thermal anomalies”. Credit: NASA

“Fires can only start in a few ways. One, is naturally, when animals drop rocks, or dew creates a magnifying glass effect, or lightning.” Right now, there is no dew, and no lightning, and its unlikely animals can set off these many fires. “A second reason is burning agricultural fields to clear crop fields, but that is usually restricted to fields. The third reason is timber contractors. They set fires around trees, weaken the base, and wait for them to fall in the rains. It makes a pretty penny,” says Bhimtal resident Gauri Rana, who also runs an adventure camp.

But the extent of the fire is also a barometer for many insidious changes in the hills. This year has seen a dry winter. Manali saw lesser snow than normal. Rain has been observed to be unseasonal. This changing weather pattern is incompatible with established practices in the area. Whoever is starting these fires, it’s becoming impossible to contain them. The fire epidemic is not an ‘Uttarakhand problem’, it’s connected with the weather patterns all over North India.

With climate change and global warming, the hills are getting drier, and tree-lines are pushing up. People are increasingly diverting water sources for tourism and extensive human use, causing more dryness in the soil. People are also planting more pine. Pine trees are commercially important – and also highly flammable. The politics of planting more pine in the mountains, is similar to growing more sugarcane in areas with drought. Not only do pines burn like tinderboxes, they also do not support as much biodiversity as an oak forest. Further, when forests burn, the dried soil aids more invasions by pine – setting up a vicious cycle. Apart from being flammable, pine forests also support lesser plant communities. For a biologically important place, this is bad news for many endemic species. There are more than 500 bird species in the Sat Taal forests, and some of it is also tiger range.

“Natural oak forests have thick leaf litter, and complex branches. They support a high density of shrubs and are associated with healthy hydrological services. Typically, you will find a stream in an oak forest. Pine trees need drier soil, and are also known to dry out the soil. Fires exacerbate the spread of pine. Oaks support more floral biodiversity and with the pines coming in, we have a net loss of biodiversity and a loss of niches for species,” says Ghazala Shahabuddin, senior fellow at the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research (CEDAR), Dehradun.

Fires burning near Nainital. Credit: Sanjay Chatterji

Fires burning near Nainital. Credit: Sanjay Chatterji

There are also other indications of warming in the hills – species found in the plains, such as Asian koel, common pigeon, house sparrow, collared dove are now being seen high above their normal altitudinal range. There are strong perceptions of warming in the farming community and more frequent drought conditions, Shahabuddin adds.

To prevent fires in the future, it is imperative that ‘fire-lines’ are cut in the hills, apart from punishment to those who set off fires. Unlike many other disasters, the toll of this one is ecological. We don’t count the dead birds and we certainly don’t count the dead trees. But it is unlikely that the Himalayan ecosystem will be able to survive more such onslaughts, without getting irreversibly degraded.

Karn Kowshik is a former journalist turned mountain guide. He spends a large amount of time outdoors, and lives in a village near Bhimtal

Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist