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Anatomy of arson

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ISLAMABAD is one of the few world capitals contiguous to a national park. However, in this place of dreams, sinister plans are brewing every minute.

Every year, the Margalla Hills National Park sees numerous fires. A fire in the spring will burn birds’ nests, kill small rodents, reptiles and mammals; anything that exists on the surface is burnt to ashes. Once ablaze, a wildfire sees no path other than that of destruction.

Forest fires in Pakistan and specifically the Margalla Hills are almost always man-made. The majority of the fires in the Margallas are related to altercations with the authorities. The remaining fires are caused by careless visitors.

In the villages around the Margalla Hills National Park, there are more than 1,000 unemployed youth. During the fire season, usually from May to July, 300 to 400 of these young men are hired as firefighters. City managers try to delay the hiring as much as possible, as the financial implications are huge. It is believed that some of these young men deliberately start fires early in the season, hoping that hiring will start as soon as possible.

Forest fires in the Margalla Hills are almost always man-made.

Then, there is the presence of a powerful timber mafia, purportedly backed by prominent people in the capital. “It is this mafia and its backers who first cut down the trees, and then to cover their footprints, set the whole empty tract on fire,” said an official on the condition of anonymity. The officer’s opinion is similar to that of the people. “Everybody can see what is at work here,” said Uzair Rasool, a real-estate developer and an ardent hiker. “They sell the trees, clear the land, and set it on fire to deceive us.”

During the last 17 years, 320 fires have engulfed close to 500 acres of forested land here; this year alone, more than 60 fires have occurred. The first major fire of the season was reported in two areas, the first behind Daman-i-Koh and the second behind sector E-8 (naval headquarters) near Kalinger village. Spreading at an alarming pace, the blaze soon engulfed three to four hectares near the village. It took over 50 helicopter sorties to extinguish the fire after two days.

The Capital Development Authority (CDA) spokesman Malik Saleem said that he could not pinpoint the cause of the fire. However, locals claimed to have seen the individuals who started the fires.

After the shock of the March fires, the April fires once again reminded us of the absurd amount of damage that a few individuals can cause. Fires were lit nearly every evening, usually four to five of them along the mountain paths.

On April 23, an area of the park near a popular eatery was set on fire, rapidly spreading over approximately 40 acres. Asked about the cause of the fire, the CDA environment wing director Irfan Niazi stated that at times locals are involved in such fire incidents, while the hiking trails located next to the park are frequently visited by enthusiasts who unconsciously discard lit cigarettes in the dry grass. The CDA eventually had to seek help from helicopters of the aviation wing of the Defence Division to extinguish the blazing fire after a taxing 48 hours.

In April, the burn severities of land in the Margalla Hills National Park were as follows: low: 192 acres, moderate-low: 120 acres, moderate-high: 46 acres and high: 0.5 acres.

The fire of April 23 had not yet been extinguished when the next day, more fires engulfed the park. These erupted at Saidpur Dari, spanning an area of approximately 10 to 12 acres. About one of them, deputy director Akhtar Rasool stated at the time: “Fire broke out at two points. Our efforts are under way to put out the flames, but strong winds have been creating problems for us.”

More than 50 fires were reported in the Margalla Hills in May alone. More recently, the burn severity has been as follows: low: 1,823 acres, moderate-low: 560 acres and moderate-high: 0.02 acres.

The consequences of these forest fires spell devastation for the environment and the people residing in close proximity. They result in great depletion of natural resources, including water. Simultaneously, the destruction caused by a forest fire can prevent the natural process in which soil and leakage normally absorb rainfall.

After losing some 1,700 hectares of land to the fires, restoration efforts have started through the process of natural regeneration. Interventions include the Seed Ball Project under which the seeds of local trees are rolled into a ball of earth and manure, and dried in the sun. These are then ready to be thrown into the forest to await the rains. Plantation in specific areas under controlled conditions will also be undertaken.

The arsonists have no qualms about carrying on until there is nothing left to destroy. Yet, with the support of citizens and local communities, a reversal of the situation is possible.

Anis-ur-Rahman is chair, Wildlife Management Board, and Maryam Wali Khan is an intern.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2018