Unprepared for disasterThe country’s failure to prioritise fire hazards as compared to other natural ones such as floods, landslides and earthquakes in its comprehensive disaster preparedness mechanism
Given its rugged topography, climatic conditions and most importantly poor pre-disaster preparedness, including the risk mitigation, Nepal is highly vulnerable to various kinds of natural hazards such as floods, landslides, earthquake and fires including wildfires, resulting in huge loss of lives and properties every year. Though various efforts are being put in place in disaster management which comprises initiatives focused on pre-disaster preparedness on floods, landslides and earthquake in recent times, limited interventions are being carried out in mitigating fire risks such as creating awareness, accessing cities with adequate infrastructure and equipment like fire brigades and construction of fire-resilient structures, said Bishal Nath Uprety, chairperson of Disaster Preparedness Network-Nepal (DPNet).
“The preparedness level to deal with any disaster is below satisfactory. However, fire hazards, considered quite severe in recent years, has not been addressed since most disaster response initiatives tend to be less responsive to fires,” said Uprety.
With the onset of dry and windy season which usually begins as early as February and until June, various places across the country, especially along the Tarai districts that witness rise in temperatures during dry months, report cases of widespread fire each year. According to the data provided by the Home Ministry in 2009, on average fires are responsible for property losses worth Rs 350 million and death of 43 people annually. Likewise, more than 1,500 outbreaks, including home fires, forest fires, structural fires and chemical fires among others are reported from different parts of the country every year, the ministry says.
Tarai region—the southern plains—report numerous fire outbreaks during the dry, stormy season between April and June when temperatures exceed 35 degree Celsius. The major causes of home fires are reportedly caused due to the wooden structures and thatched roofs, which are extremely vulnerable to incendiary lighting strikes.
While government officials put the blame on locals for ignorance and being careless in handling inflammable substance which results in fires in most cases, civil society members claim that fires which are mostly accidental need prompt response, a noted shortcoming of government bodies.
A similar case occurred in Fungling bazaar, Taplejung, a hilly district in east Nepal, on Monday evening. The headquarters remained engulfed in fire for almost seven hours before a fire brigade reached the city on the wee hours of Tuesday, last week. By that time, 44 houses had already been destroyed along with 118 families rendered homeless and the bazaar incurred a loss around Rs 300 million alone.
This was the third time that the bazaar caught fire. But unfortunately local authorities had failed to learn a lesson from the past experiences for they do not have a single fire engine, a prerequisite to address fire-related hazards, which a common disaster taking place in newly established municipalities such as Taplejung. Majority of municipalities, including the newly declared 71 ones, lack adequate fire prevention and extinguishing measures.
“One of the major challenges for us to address fire-related hazards is public ignorance towards the possibility of such inferno,” said Laxmi Dhakal, ministry spokesperson. According to him, the major reasons for fire-related incidences are the densely clustered settlements in Tarai districts, poor housing structures, mishandling of inflammable substances, poor awareness of fire hazards and criminal activities, among others. A report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme in 2011 stated that the country has failed to adopt a comprehensive policy on fire management despite the fact that the urban population has soared and municipal infrastructures have largely expanded to meet their needs.
The impact of wildfire or bushfire, one of the forms of fires being witnessed in Nepal is no different. Every year, hundreds of hectares of forests are being destroyed and the communities living in and around the forests are being impacted by such fires, caused mostly due to the negligence of people.
The most severe case of wildfire was reported in 2009 when the US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration listed Nepal as a country “most vulnerable to wildfires” with the highest number of forest fires in a day—358—on April 25. Similarly, fires killed 49, 9, 1 and 2 people in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively. According to Sundar Sharma of the UNISDR-Regional South Asia Wildland Fire Network, since 2009 the government has come up with some positive interventions to address the growing threat of wildfires in forests and communities, including the formulation of the Forest Policy released this year that has integrated policies to minimise the risks and prepare communities to combat wildfires. In 2010, the Forest Fire Management Strategy was endorsed which focuses on involving local communities and concerned stakeholders to mitigate the risks related with forest fires in both community and public forestlands.
“Still, forest fires are one of biggest concerns in the country. There is lack of adequate equipments, trainings and preparedness measures taken to reduce the risks,” Sharma said.