Districts of Lumbini province are caught unprepared by wildfires every yearLack of coordination and shifting of the blame between authorities have resulted in a slipshod approach to wildfires.
A 13-year-old boy and a 55-year-old man succumbed to burn injuries they sustained while attempting to control a forest fire in Bardabas forest in Gulmi last week. One man sustained critical injuries in the same incident.
In the past 10 days, wildfires have gutted more than 10 houses and sheds in the district, according to the District Police Office. The threat is not over yet as there are several forest fires still active in the district, police said.
Ram Kumar Chaudhary, acting forest officer in Gulmi, said that the forest fires have damaged around 900 hectares of forest land in the district so far this year. Besides human casualties, wildfires have also resulted in the destruction of medicinal herbs worth millions and have also affected the wildlife. “We are still dealing with forest fires and have yet to assess the environmental damage and damage to wildlife,” Chaudhary said.
Several districts of Lumbini province experience wildfires every year. But the damage incurred by humans, wildlife and the environment remains largely unaddressed, with concerns about them fading out after the wildfire season ends.
In Nepal, the wildfire season starts in November-December and continues until the onset of monsoon, which arrives in the country around June.
Gulmi and Palpa are two of the worst-affected districts by wildfires in Lumbini province but neither of the districts adopts precautionary measures before the wildfire season begins. Nor do they equip themselves with the resources to fight fires and mitigate damage.
Every district has a natural disaster management committee and a similar committee in each local unit. These committees have formulated work plans to prevent and control wildfires and mitigate the damage but such plans are rarely implemented.
“The disaster management committee formulates work plans in each local unit,” said Narayan Dev Bhattarai, chief of the Division Forest Office in Palpa. “But they do not invest in equipment needed to prevent and contain forest fires.”
However, it is not just the disaster management committees that are responsible to prevent and control forest fires. The government authorities—Division Forest Office, Forest Consumers’ Committee, security agencies and local units—also shoulder the responsibility to keep wildfires in check. But the lack of coordination and shifting of the blame between these authorities results in a slipshod approach to wildfires.
Each district has a community forest consumers’ committee formed specifically for the conservation of forests. The committee is mandated by law to allocate 35 percent of its annual budget for forest conservation.
“But the forest consumers’ committee does not play an active role when it comes to controlling wildfires and forest conservation,” said Prem Shrestha, chairman of Tinau Rural Municipality. “Our local unit also has a forest coordination committee. We need to ensure that the committee fulfils its roles towards forest conservation effectively.”
Several community forests in Tansen Municipality and Tinau Rural Municipality in Palpa witness forest fires every year. This year, wildfires are being reported from various forests in Rainadevi Chhahara, Ribdikot, Rambha, Mathagadhi, Nisdi, Purbakhola and Baganaskali rural municipalities too.
According to the Division Forest Office, this year, wildfires have ravaged forests in more than 60 places in Palpa, a hill district of Lumbini Province. The wildfires in Pipaldanda of Rambha Rural Municipality entered the settlement and destroyed two houses and three animal sheds last week. Some forest fires are still active, said Bhattarai.
The people’s representatives in the affected local units say the local units haven’t been able to play an effective role in preventing and controlling forest fires due to the lack of trained human resources, fire engines and other firefighting tools and equipment.
“The locals and the forest employees have to douse the fires without using tools and equipment,” said Radha Kumari Shrestha, the vice-chairperson of Rambha Rural Municipality. “We use tree branches to kill the flames. It’s not very helpful.”
According to Upendra Aryal, assistant forest officer of the division forest office in Palpa, this year wildfires burnt hectares of land in several forests in Chure, Mahabharat and Salleri forest areas. “The forest employees, security personnel and the locals tried to control the fires but to no avail,” he said. “We didn’t have fire trucks or any other tools and equipment to fight the fires.”
Wildfire is ravaging forestland in the Chure region of Bardiya district as well.
According to Ashok Kumar Bhandari, chief conservation officer at Bardiya National Park, wildfires have ravaged forestland in the Babai Valley area of the national park. “The Babai Valley area is ravaged by wildfires almost yearly,” he said. “One of the reasons wildfires spread uncontrollably in the valley is the delay in responding to fire incidents reports on time. The terrain is hilly and there is no transportation facility to get there. So there is not much to be done except watch the forest burn.”
Though forest fires are classified as natural disasters, only a fraction of them are caused naturally. The majority of fire incidents result from human causes; poachers put on fire to hunt wild animals and farmers to clear land for farming. Discarded cigarette butts are also among the biggest causes of forest fires.
The police personnel, who are usually the first responders, and other concerned authorities are largely clueless about the cause of forest fires. Police suspect that the local people light a fire in the forests to chase away wild animals including monkeys, rabbits and porcupines. Such negligent actions lead to uncontrollable forest fires, said Kali Bahadur Sunar, police head constable at Pipaldanda Police Post of Rambha Rural Municipality.
In Nepal, wildfires occur naturally mostly during dry weather and drought conditions destroying Nepal’s valuable forests, which took more than six decades of restoration. The damage is further compounded by the lack of resources locally and strategies to prevent or contain wildfires.
(With inputs from Gaganshila Khadka in Gulmi and Kamal Panthi in Bardiya)