2017: Forest Fire Relief Year
As the dry winds of March begin to blow across Nepal, a recurring anxiety arrives with it. By April and May, forest fires normally burn uncontrollably. Thousands of hectares of forest turn into ash, and lives and property are lost to it. In one of the worst fires in recent memory, 49 people were killed and thousands of hectares of forests were damaged in the summer of 2009. This year, as winter thaws into a wet spring, the story has been different.
Kafle, DoF Under Secretary
We can say this year has been a forest fire relief year.
According to data compiled by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) and Department of Forests (DoF) under the Ministry of Forests and Soil, rains through January and February this year significantly minimised the risk of forest fires across the country. Normally, after the monsoon ends in November, Nepal experiences a long dry spell that slowly transitions to monsoon in June. It is those drys months that make protected areas and public/community forests in the country susceptible to wild fires.
“Rainfall played a major role in reducing fires and there has been no human casualty so far, this year. The government’s intervention has also helped control fires to some extent,” shares Sundar Sharma, Coordinator of UNISDR-Regional South Asia Wildland Fire Network.
Last year, by this time, forest fires had destroyed 1.3 million hectares of forests, and killed 11 people in separate incidences across the country. This year, about 39,000 hectares of forests including inside protected areas, and public and community forests are reported to have been damaged by forest fires. Three houses and six cowsheds have been affected too.
During the devastating forest fire season of 2009, Nepal witnessed the highest number of blazes in a day on April 29, 2009: There were 358 fires that day. The country was then listed as ‘most vulnerable to wildfires’ by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). After the alarming forest fire situation in 2009 that received both national and international attention, the government decided to mitigate wildfires by formulating the Forest Fire Management 2010, a policy document to address risks related to wildfires. Since then, the government has been creating awareness at the community level on fire management, training firefighters (small scale), setting up fire lines, and has increased budget allocation to districts affected the most by forest fires.
Moreover, the government launched a special programme, this fiscal year (2016/17), on wildfire management in 36 of the country’s 75 districts. Most of these districts are in Eastern Nepal. Forest offices in the respective districts have begun constructing artificial ponds and fire lines, and managing forest litter. Around 200 ponds are to be constructed by the end of July 2017. The budget for wildfire management has also increased from Rs. 30mn to Rs.100mn.
“Efforts are being made, but they are not enough. We are still rain-dependent for wildfire risk mitigation as we lack enough trained firefighters and equipment to contain fires,” Sharma says.
Forest fires are not considered natural disasters so the response from authorities is less urgent as well. It also does not help matters that authorities are known to seek divine intervention when forest fires cannot be controlled.