Fire rages on in Pathibhara forest areaLocal residents call in a helicopter to spray water, but fail to put out the fire.
During the first week of December, a forest fire was reported in Toktoke forest in Ward No. 7 of Sidingwa Rural Municipality, Taplejung. The fire had raged on for a week before it went out.
Gauri Bhattarai, a resident of the ward, says although the fire was extinguished, the area was engulfed in a thick blanket of smoke for days.
“Some parts of the Toktoke forest catches fire once a year. No one has been able to point out why,” said Bhattarai. “None of the authorities had given much thought to this yearly phenomenon.”
Similarly, in Phawa Khola, Phungling Municipality-11 under the Pathibhara area, a fire has been raging for the last 14 days. It has now reached Topethok, which falls in Ward No. 4 of Phaktalung Rural Municipality, local residents say.
The fire has encircled the Pathibhara temple area from two sides. Laxmi Kafle, secretary of the Pathibhara Devi Temple Area Conservation Committee, said, “We have constructed a fire line around the temple to control the wildfire. On Monday, a helicopter also sprayed water to douse the fire, but it was not as effective as expected.”
Forest fires are frequent occurrences during the dry season, says Birendra Shah, chief at the Division Forest Office. “Most forest fires are caused by cigarette stubs thrown carelessly in the dry forest floor or due the people’s failure to douse a fire completely after igniting one. Cattle herders’ also light fires in the forest to burn dried grass in grazing areas. Usually, they come under control,” said Shah. “But this year, we are facing difficulties containing the fire in the Pathibhara area. The area is experiencing snowfall too, but that has done little to douse the fire.”
According to him, his office does not have sufficient budget to contain the fire. “It will be possible to kill the fire only with the help of the army. The Pathibhara committee and the army should work in coordination to contain the fire.”
“On Monday, we had Simrik Air’s helicopter spray water. But even after spraying 200 to 400 litres of water, the fire couldn’t be controlled. The helicopter was returned to Kathmandu as it was a futile exercise.”
Rajendra Mahat, a local resident of Mathillo Phedi, said, “Dharamshala and other infrastructures of Pathibhara are so far safe from the fire. But we don’t know when the fire will expand its reach. The forest is dense, and the terrain difficult so it’s very difficult to know the exact extent of the fire.”
According to the Division Forest Office, 70 to 75 hectares of the forest area get affected by wildfires every year. “Wildfires are just like road accidents—they happen a few times. This year, the fire started in the forest during the winter when it’s cold and wet due to snowfall,” said Shah. According to the office, forest fire incidents are being reported earlier than in the previous years. “This usually occurs during the dry season, but the Pathibhara area has not received rainfall since mid-September.”
Chandra Rai, an official at the forest office in Taplejung, said, “It is challenging for us to contain forest fires in the hilly areas due to difficult terrain. Many fire incidents were also reported in Ramechhap and Gulmi districts in the past.”