Unchecked wildfires eating up Haripur’s forests

Published July 28, 2019
A forest fire in Haripur. — Dawn
A forest fire in Haripur. — Dawn

Despite legislation primarily meant to protect the forestland, the forests and related biodiversity of Haripur district is exposed to dangers due to poor forest management and corrupt and negligent behaviour on the part of officials and community members.

A total of 29 wildfire incidents have been reported between June 9 and 20 in Haripur forestland this year and according to official record these fires have destroyed forests over 987 hectares and burnt down a large quantity of over 2.2 million trees.

The assessment of loss in about six forest fire incidents that occurred during the last week of June is yet to be compiled by the department.

Though the size and age of burnt trees/plants are not clear, the department, through its officials and revenue department, estimates the loss at over Rs11 million. Most of the forest area burnt by the wildfires, according to official reports, was state-owned. One private property was in Karwala village where 55 hectares area was burnt with 59,125 plants and its total financial loss was estimated at Rs1.87 million. The second wildfire in private land was in Julian Bala village where only five hectares of forestland was destroyed, burning around 12,500 plants, resulting in loss of Rs95,000.

Rest of all the tracts destroyed were state-owned reserved forest areas under the Billion Tree Tsunami Project (BTTP). The official documents indicated that on June 9 the fire started from Muslimabad village and a total of 11 points remained under fire for over three days while the forest areas of Komal Gali village, Nara Mujahth, Janaja and Kharian also remained under wildfire the same day.

On a single day fires that took three to four days to extinguish burnt down 388 hectare of area having 827,440 plants. Though the forest department did not mention the mature trees among the list of burnt ones, the area people and rescue teams said that there were many mature trees that were damaged either fully or partially. On the complaint of forest officials the police have booked about half a dozen villagers on the charges of setting the jungle areas on fire.

The forest department showed 97 per cent of the fires as accidental and ignited by unknown persons. However, background information suggests otherwise. Area people believe that local farmers follow the decades-old practice of setting dry grass, leaves and branches, on fire, for obtaining added quantity of grass as source of fodder for their livestock, which might have caused the fires. In some cases the negligence of forest department staff and handiwork of miscreants could not be ruled out as they deliberately set the forest area on fire whereas in a few cases the small fire lit by tourists or throwing of burning cigarette cause the inferno, destroying both the minor and mature plants.

During this season two volunteers were also killed after suffering burn injuries while fighting the wildfire in Gandiyan village a few weeks ago. In 2017, three officials of forest department were also burnt to death during a bid to put out a jungle fire with conventional method as the department lacks equipment to protect its staff and volunteers from getting burn injuries.

According to Ahsan Khan, a local social scientist, section 15 of NWFP Wildlife (Protection and Management Act 1975, states that “no person is allowed to light a fire in the forest area. While under Forest Sector Plan 1992, the forest officer is responsible for protection, including clearing of forest for agriculture, grazing and hunting. This plan also empowers the forest officer to punish the accused involved in such offences,” he said, adding that KP Forest Ordinance 2002 also provides enough powers to the forest department.

Mohammad Shoaib, a local environmentalist, said that wildfire was a great threat to human populations near the forest areas. The release of hazardous chemicals from the burning of wild land has a significant impact on the human health. He said that being 15th Sustainable Development Goal it was incumbent on the government to ensure fulfillment of the global commitment of protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests and combating desertification.

Gulfam, another student of environmental sciences, claimed that the forest department lacked the preventive strategy. He said that lack of proper information system, modern machinery and trained volunteers were among the chief reasons rendering the relevant legislation toothless.

PML-N Haripur chapter general secretary said that the frequent wildfires in Haripur unlike previous years had corroborated the opposition’s stand that BTTP was shrouded in corruption and mismanagement. He demanded an inquiry into the loss of natural forest resources.

Haripur has three forest ranges which included the areas of Haripur, Makhniyal, Satora, Ghazi and Khanpur. Total area under forest in Haripur is 495,265 acres.

According to official figures, 33,811 acres land was under reserved forest, while 63,034 acres was ‘guzara’. Under BTTP, a total of 192 enclosures were developed and each of them measuring 20 kanals has over 2,500 plants.

District forest officer Syed Rizwan Kazmi confirmed that most of forest fires were caused by setting of foliage on fire for growth of grass which was a centuries-old practice. He said that his department was making efforts to curb the incidents of wildfires. He said that eruption of surface fire in the forest areas under (chir) pine trees was a natural phenomenon, which though was harmful for biodiversity, yet clearing the surface of litters (grass, leaves, etc) had a positive impact as it helped allowing ground contact to the fallen seeds of pine trees for germination.

About the recent fire incidents, he said that several times the forest fire crept into Haripur’s territory from Islamabad and it was Haripur’s staff that controlled it. He said that mostly the fire erupted from private forest areas and engulfed the reserved forest. Outdoor cooking and smoking in forest areas especially those attracting tourists are other factors causing of fires. He said the tourism management should be linked with mandatory fire management mechanism.

About the mechanism to combat forest fire, the DFO said that together with officials of forest department, including Negehbans deputed to look after BTTP plantation, the councillors, patwaries and volunteers were engaged in firefighting by using only fire beaters, also known as broom, to extinguish the fire.

In vulnerable jungles, the forest department makes fire lines at a reasonable distance and every line is dug 4-5 feet wide and 400 metres long that protect the forest area from massive loss as spread of fire slows down and the firefighters could easily manage it.

According to Obaid Mehmood, the forest department’s resource person, awareness sessions are conducted in all the areas near forestland through community meetings and prayer leaders. He said that such sessions were also used for educating the communities to protect forests by avoiding animal grazing, cutting trees and setting grass on fire.

About immediate needs for preventing forest fires, DFO Kazmi said that every range should be provided with enough hoes, fire beaters and brooms made of steel besides masks, goggles, fire-resistant uniforms and shoes for the firefighters.

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2019

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