Worsening wildfires a reminder that the country lacks clear policiesDespite their frequency, in which lives, wildlife and hundreds of thousands of hectares of green cover are lost, forest fire disasters have been largely ignored by authorities, experts say.
Hari Subedi, a member of a community forest group in Kawasoti, Nawalpur, is worried. Raging wildfire incidents in various community-managed forests in Nawalpur have troubled him.
Last week, there was a wildfire in a small patch of Shiva Community Forest, which is spread over 104 hectares.
“Luckily, we managed to put out the fire before it could spread,” said Subedi, who is a joint secretary of the forest user group. “This is happening every year. For nearly four months, we have to be alert for potential forest fire incidents.”
But fires in community forests in Nawalpur this season are not an anomaly.
Incidents of wildfire have been reported from across the country.
As per data on forest fires accumulated by the Nepal Forest Fire Management Chapter, 524 fires were detected in Nepal in the 24 hours of March 25. Before that on Friday afternoon, forest fires had broken out at 437 places in 54 districts.
In Nepal, the wildfire season starts in November/December and continues until the onset of monsoon, which arrives in the country usually on June 10.
More than 2,500 wildfires have been reported from 73 districts so far this season.
Winter fire usually begins in mid-November, mostly in the mountain regions, whereas summer fires occur between March and mid-May in Tarai districts and the mid-hills. There have been forest blazes reported in mountainous districts like Taplejung, Manang and Mustang as well.
The wildfire in Taplejung in the last week of December last year raged for several days. Local authorities had to hire a helicopter to extinguish the fire.
By January, around 700 hectares of forest cover were burnt down by a wildfire that had been raging in Manang district for two months. The wildfire had started in November last year.
In Myagdi, wildfires have been raging in over two dozen community and national forests, wildlife reserves and conservation areas for the past few days, leaving authorities struggling to control the flames.
Wildfire means that valuable forest, resources that it provides and bio-diversity that it sustains are burnt to ashes. The burning of forests also releases many pollutants into the air, which can have a direct and adverse impact on human health.
Last year, the BBC reported that smoke from burning forests can linger in the atmosphere for weeks, travelling thousands of miles and harming the health of populations living far away.
A study released earlier this month concluded that tiny particles released in wildfire smoke are up to 10 times more harmful to humans than particles released from other sources, such as car exhaust.
Over the past few days, various cities, including the capital Kathmandu, have been covered in smoke, caused by raging wildfires across the country. Pollution has reached hazardous levels, forcing the government to order a shutdown of schools.
The Health Ministry has issued an advisory urging people to avoid outdoor activities as much as possible and wear masks and take other precautions.
“The country has been experiencing a harsh impact of wildfires in the form of dense haze and smoke. This is a visible environmental and public health impact,” said Birendra Kumar Karna, a senior researcher with the Forest Action Nepal, a non-profit working in the areas of forestry, agriculture and climate change. “There have been instances when forest fires have reached human settlements and killed people and livestock. Besides, forest fires burn medicinal plants, rare and endangered species of plants and wild animals."
Though forest fires are classified as natural disasters, only a fraction of them, around 10-15 percent, are caused naturally. The majority of fire incidents result from human causes—such as burning of forests to hunt wild animals or clearing land for farming. Discarded cigarette butts are also among the biggest causes of forest fires.
Wildfires occur naturally mostly during dry weather and drought conditions, which can turn green vegetation so dry that it becomes flammable fuel. Strong winds, which can spread fire rapidly, and warm temperatures, which make combustion easy, then are the perfect recipe. It just needs a spark and it can be caused by lightning or discarded cigarette butts or sometimes even with a collision between rocks.
Forest fires have been a recurring problem for the country, with a green cover of nearly 45 percent. Every year, the country loses around 200,000 hectares of forest area to wildfires—a major challenge for forest and biodiversity conservation.
This year, a dry winter season, exacerbated the situation.
According to Madhukar Upadhya, a climate change expert and watershed management practitioner, while wildfires have become more intense and frequent in recent years, the response to tackle the disaster remains insignificant.
“I have seen forest fires in Shivapuri, in the north of Kathmandu, where it would remain for a few days and extinguish,” said Upadhya, who is also a columnist for the Post. “Nowadays, forests continue to burn for several days.”
According to Sundar Prasad Sharma, an expert on forest fire who voluntarily manages data related to wildfire and incurred losses, 225 incidents of forest fires in 51 districts were reported on Sunday.
“The number of forest fires came down on Monday afternoon when wildfire incidents occurred at 115 places in 34 districts,” Sharma told the Post. “Wildfire is raging across the country although it has mostly affected central and western districts like Parsa, Chitwan, Makawanpur, Kailali and Kanchanpur.”
While forest fires result in biodiversity losses, experts say there is a direct correlation between wildfires and socio-economy. Estimates suggest wildfires in Nepal cause an annual income loss of Rs5,000 per household, equivalent to 7.32 percent of the annual gross domestic product per capita.
Upadhya, the climate change expert, says prolonged burning of forests lately is related to the economic transformation the country has seen.
“First, there are not enough youths or people in general who would go out in the jungle to put out the fire as in the past,” Upadhya told the Post. “Then, as dependence on forest for resources like firewood and dried leaves has reduced, it led to fuel deposition in forests. With dry mass stored and dry winter, chances of forest fire became higher.”
According to Upadhya, since people are not rearing cattle like in the past and they do not take their livestock for grazing out in the jungle, they have become less concerned about forests.
“As a result, there are more and prolonged forest fires,” said Upadhya.
The government, however, says it has come up with a plan to minimise forest fire incidents.
The government recently transferred Sundar Prasad Sharma, the forest fire focal person at the Department of Forests, to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority under the Home Ministry.
Sharma has been tasked with leading the mechanism under the Home Ministry for fighting wildlife incidents.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Forests and Environment have started working in tandem now,” said Sharma, who assumed his new role on Monday. “We will be working to develop a long-term strategic plan for combating the wildfire problem.”
Experts, however, say authorities must work fast and implement their programmes before it’s too late besides putting in place mechanisms for prompt response to the incidents of forest fires.
“The government authorities have been doing nothing other than writing letters or issuing orders,” said Upadhya. “Authorities have no idea how to put out a fire if it spreads massively. We should not be surprised if the government authorities come out and extend an excuse, saying even California and Australia could not control forest fires.”
While uncontrolled wildfires can be dangerous, destroying valuable resources, forest fire does have its benefits for the ecosystem as well. Forest fires release valuable nutrients stored in the litter on the forest surface and also support new growth of vegetation.
Experts say given the trend, more and prolonged wildfires can be expected in the country in the coming days and one of the most immediate measures the authorities must put in place is a quick response team equipped with training.
“Such response teams can be quickly deployed to the incident site to minimise the damage, as it is easier to put out a fire before it spreads to a larger area,” said Karna the researcher. “Other small measures could be constructing ponds, as we may not have resources to fly helicopters to douse the fires, as they do in western countries.”
In Nepal, communities usually are the first responders in the event of a forest fire. But without proper training and a lack of equipment and gear, casualties are often reported.
The worst wildfire in recent years was recorded in 2009 when 49 people, including 13 Nepal Army personnel, died in Ramechhap while fighting wildfire. In 2016, 15 people were reported dead due to wildfires.
This year at least three people have been killed in forest fire incidents.
According to data compiled by Sharma, at least 107 deaths due to wildfires have been reported from 2005 until March 26 this year.
After a hot and dry winter season, which only received 25 percent of normal rainfall during the period, a dry and hot pre-monsoon (March to May) has been predicted leading to drought, drying up of natural springs, increased fire and wildfire incidents.
“The pre-monsoon has been predicted to be dry again. As dryness is likely to continue for some more time, leading to drought, chances of wildfire staying longer are high. Then, its impacts will go beyond haze and smoke; livelihoods will be affected hugely,” said Upadhya, the climate change expert. “Wildfire or fire hazards incidents, in general, have not drawn the state’s attention. The state has to mobilise human resources to deal with deadly fire incidents.”
Without any proper mechanism to deal with forest fires, the only way such raging fires can stop is when the monsoon arrives.
“Every time monsoon comes, wildfires naturally come under control. The issue is forgotten until the next season of wildfires which then again wreak havoc,” said Upadhya. “There is neither institutional mechanism nor policies for directly handling wildfires. The least the authorities could do is raise awareness among the communities and penalise those involved deliberately causing wildfires.”