Professor Shekhar Pathak, an expert on the history of forests in the region, says, ‘You can smell the smell of this smoke from the side of the lake I live on.’
“Not only are cedar trees that catch fire very quickly, they are burning, but oak trees are also burning, which means that the situation is very serious,” he says.
People living in the area, the worst affected by the wildfire, have told the BBC that they are unable to sleep at night.
“We wake up in the middle of the night and go to the surrounding forest to see if the fire is going to reach our homes,” says Kedar Avani, a resident of Banna village in Pithoragarh district.
Pithoragarh hill province is the easternmost district of Uttarakhand.
Kedar says, “The fire has burned our fodder and grass kept for animals. Now we are afraid that even our houses may not burn down.”
They say the fire is so strong that it starts burning from twenty meters away.
“We have no way to extinguish this fire.”
Record cases of wildfire
Scientists say wildfires in some areas of north India and Nepal are the worst fire in the last fifteen years.
according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS), forest fires in Uttarakhand have emit0.2 megatonnes of carbon in the last month. This is the highest since 2003.
The agency analyzed satellite images that contained 18 megatons of carbon emissions in Nepal during the same period. This is the highest since 2016. There were 27 megatonnes of emissions that year.
“It shows the intensity with which the fire is spreading in the region,” says Mark Perington, a top scientist at CAMS. It’s a matter of concern.”
Twenty people have been reported killed in wildfires in Nepal and Uttarakhand so far. Millions of hectares of forest are believed to have been burnt to ashes. However, the official figure has not been released.
There has been no rain in Nepal and many parts of north India for the past few months. Due to which the forests have dried up.
Shekhar Pathak says, “It has neither rained nor snowed for many months. That is why even chestnut trees are burning because the land on which they are standing is very dry.”
Another thing to worry about is that usually, the worst fire in the forests takes place in May. It is yet to come for this forest fire to take a more frightening form.
Scientists say that even though climate change cannot be directly blamed for forest fires in the region, it has only added to the drought here.
Officials in Nepal and India say forest fires in many places have been triggered by the burning of crops in nearby fields.
But experts say the problem is not limited to setting fire to weather and crops.
“Government policymakers think that forest work is only to convert carbon into oxygen, but they forget that forest fires also occur and cause carbon emissions,” says Vijender Ajnabi, a natural resource management expert associated with Oxfam and working in Chhattisgarh, India.
“Forest fires in India are not a priority issue right now and that is why it is usually not discussed in Parliament.”
Wildfire is not a natural disaster?
India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has not considered forest fires as a natural threat.
NDMA has placed only cyclones, tsunamis, heatwave, landslides, floods, and hunger in this category on its website.
An analysis by the Forest Survey of India in 2019 showed that 36 percent of forests in the country are at risk of fire, and one-third of them are at high risk.
“We have not placed forest fires in India in the list of natural hazards because most of the forest fires in India are deliberately caused by agricultural reasons and are a man-made threat,” says Krishna Vats, a member of NDMA.
“But we acknowledge that wildfire is becoming a serious threat and that’s why we are working with forest departments and other agencies in all provinces to deal with them,” he says.
Fire service deficiencies
Based on the report of the Standing Fire Advisory Committee, NDMA has already highlighted the serious shortcomings of the country’s fire services.
The committee in its investigation had found that 80 percent of vehicles involved in fire fighting teams in the country have defects, while the number of firemen in the country is 96 percent less than what is needed.
“We have made a lot of improvements since that report, but we also know that a lot is yet to be done,” says DK Dhami, senior official, and consultant at the Directorate General of Fire Services, India.
“At that time, we had about 55,000 firemen. We now have more than 75,000 employees.”
The government has also increased the fire budget as compared to earlier. Now the government has made a provision of about Rs 50 billion for states from this year to 2026. This is five times more than the first provisions.
But experts say it has not helped much in fighting wildfires on the ground.
“Wildfires are becoming much more serious than ever, but there is no preparation for the administration,” says Anirudh Jadeja, an environmental activist from the Kumaon district.
“Our forests are very large and the number of forest department employees is very low. Whenever there is a big fire, they can’t do much.”
So do the forest experts in Nepal.
“We hear that Nepal gets millions of dollars from abroad in the name of the environment, but none of it is spent to extinguish forest fires,” says Bharti Pathak, president of Nepal’s Federation of Community Forestry Users.
“Our community forestry work has received worldwide acclaim, but now forest fires can end all the work done.”
Nepalese authorities say they are doing whatever they can to douse the fire.
“We are doing whatever we can with our limited resources, but the fire is in areas where it is difficult to reach,” says Prakash Lamsal, spokesman for Nepal’s forest ministry. The peaks of ups and downs, the deliberate setting of fire of people and the dry weather are causing difficulties.”
“We have all seen how difficult it is to extinguish forest fires in developed countries as well.”
Help local communities
Experts say forest dwellers can play an important role in extinguishing the fire, but it is not happening.
“This is because there is a lack of trust between the forest dwellers and the forest departments,” says Pathak.
“Many communities living in the forests want their rights to be protected on the forests. This creates an atmosphere of tension between them and the forest department, which leads to a lack of trust. That is why the fight against wildfire is also affected.’
On the other hand, forest officials say they protect forests under the law.
‘The administration usually blames local communities for wildfires, but in fact, it can work closely with them to control the fire,’ says Stranger.