SITUATED in the Koh-i-Suleman range, the forest of Shirani is spread over a vast area. It straddles northern Balochistan and southern Khyber Pakh­tunkhwa.

Two tribes are predominant in the region — Shirani Pakhtuns and Harifal. Shirani is a far-flung, secluded district in Balochistan that does not even have a bazaar. Most of the people live in villages. The forest covers an area of 26,000 acres.

Their main source of livelihood is trade in the pine nuts that abound in the forest. Another source is the remittances sent by Shiranis working in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

All hell broke loose in Shirani on May 18 when the forest caught fire.

Locals watched helplessly until fire-fighting operation began. Some of them went up to the mountains to tame the mammoth fire on their own. But unfortunately three of them lost their lives while another three were badly injured.

Like the other helpless residents of Shirani, Saadullah Shirani, who lives in Sharghali — a little village nestled snugly at the foot of the mountain — has seen the fire gobbling up his pine nut trees. “My whole family is dependent on this business. The trade fetches us half a million rupees a year,” he says, a mist in his eyes.

Another resident Sattar Shirani said just one helicopter is working to bring the scourge under control. “The mind refuses to believe that Pakistan does not have equipment to tackle a fire of this magnitude.”

Firefight, rescue operation

Army and FC helicopters were taking part in the operation to control the fire and protect the remaining trees of pine nuts and olives. “We are making all-out efforts and utilising available resources to control fire and save the forests from further destruction,” Zhob division Comm­issioner Bashir Ahmed Bazai told Dawn. However, he said, there was no change in the fire situation due to strong winds despite all the efforts, adding that firefighting equipment and volunteers were also arriving from Lahore.

Shirani DC Ijaz Ahmed Jaffar said relief camps were established to shift people from the fire-affected areas to the camps. PDMA and local administration supplied relief goods, including tents, blankets, sheets and food items, at these camps, he added.

Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Qudoos Bizenjo and Corps Commander Lt Gen Sarfraz Ali visited Shirani district to review the situation.

Mr Bizenjo announced a compensation of Rs1 million each for families of the three people who lost their lives and Rs500,000 each for the injured.

The chief minister also spoke to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif via video link, revealing that Iran would provide a special plane to help douse the forest fire.

At a press conference on Sunday, a spokesman for the provincial government thanked the government of Iran for the assistance.

At the same time, Farah Azaeem Shah called upon the federal and provincial disaster management authorities to step up efforts for ending the helpless villagers’ agony.

According to some locals, the signs are ominous and they fear the fire is gaining force and unless it is smothered soon, it will ravage more areas. “So far, at least one-third area of the forest has been affected,” says Mohammad Yahya Musakhail, who is a coordinator on Balochistan’s pine nut projects.

“To an extent, we have set up barriers in some parts of the forest to save other areas from destruction. We have removed bushes over an area of 10sq-km to stop the fire from spreading to other parts of the forest in Shirani.”

Mr Yahya is hopeful the Iranian plane will be able to control the fire in 12 rounds. But like other government officials, his biggest hope is rain. “It can put out the blaze once and for all.”

Some of the villagers mourn that a large number of animals and birds have perished.

Cooking banned

The Balochistan government has imposed a ban on camping, cooking and picnicking in all forests of the province.

A notification issued by the Home and Tribal Affairs Department said the province was facing a drought-like situation and there is a danger of more wildfires.

Saleem Shahid also contributed to this report.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2022

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