The climate emergency requires immediate action
Published July 24, 2022

Devastating forest fires in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan made news nationally and internationally at the beginning of summer. The fires raged on for days, destroying the livelihood of thousands and resulting in losses of billions of rupees. Now that they are out, and the news cycle has moved on, there is a need for critical thinking. How can such calamities be avoided in the future?


By Muhammad Sadaqat

A poorly equipped official of KP’s forest department attempts to protect the forestland from the raging inferno | Photo courtesy the writer
A poorly equipped official of KP’s forest department attempts to protect the forestland from the raging inferno | Photo courtesy the writer

Twelve-year-old Iqra may have been only a young girl but, as the oldest daughter in her household, she was very conscious of her responsibilities. When her mother, Zubaida Bibi, instructed her to get a bundle of grass from a nearby forest on June 7, she took out her sickle and a rope and left right away.

Iqra knew that this was urgent. Her family, based in Khanpur Tehsil, Haripur District, relied on their two buffaloes for their livelihood. Feeding the buffaloes and keeping them healthy was always the family’s priority. But this was going to be difficult in the near future. Raging forest fires in the neighbouring hilly area had already decimated several acres of forestland. Safely keeping the animals fed was bound to pose a challenge.

Iqra, her aunt, Yasmin Bibi, and some other girls from the village spent hours cutting grass on that fateful morning. They put the bundles of grass on their heads and started on their way back. Tired and distracted, the group did not notice that the fire had already reached the route they were taking, and soon they were in mortal danger.

While the other girls and Yasmin Bibi escaped using an alternate route, Iqra climbed up an olive tree in an attempt to get away from the fire. The fire caught up with the young girl.

Yasmin Bibi went back for Iqra and suffered minor burns herself. But Iqra was in very bad shape. Word quickly spread, and Iqra and Yasmin were taken to the Khanpur Hospital and later shifted to the Trauma Centre Haripur. But because there was no dedicated burns unit in the entire district, doctors recommended that the girl be taken to the Wah Cantonment Hospital.

By the time the decision was made, it was already too late. Iqra was no more.


This was the 19th incident of wildfires in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Haripur District since April 9, when the first forest fires broke out in Haripur District. On June 7, the day that Iqra got caught in the inferno, jungles in different parts of Hazara Division and the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were also on fire.

That evening, Rafaqat from District Mansehra lost three cows in another fire. He also suffered considerable financial losses when the fire, travelling from the forest with the wind, destroyed his ranch and a bedroom completely. The same fire also claimed the life of another villager’s daughter.

Forest fires are not a new phenomenon. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa wildfires take a heavy toll on the flora and fauna, affecting hundreds of hectares of land every year. According to consolidated data, based on the Daily Situation Reports (DSR) released by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s forestry, environment and wildlife department, a total of 283 fire incidents were reported across the province between May 23 and June 13, 2022.

While the majority of these were classified as ‘ground fires’, that burn the humus and usually do not appear at the surface, four percent of these were classified as ‘crown fires’, categorised as the most dangerous and fastest spreading fires.

A firefighter extinguishes fire that broke out in Punjar. Rescue 1122 firefighters fought the fire for over 24 hours | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
A firefighter extinguishes fire that broke out in Punjar. Rescue 1122 firefighters fought the fire for over 24 hours | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

The vulnerability of forest damage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is also detailed in another official report. According to the report, 1,392.5 hectares were burnt during 2016-17, 1,668.42 hectares in 2017-18, 1,252.12 hectares in 2018-19, 1,220.65 hectares in 2019-20 and 1,033.54 hectares between 2020-21.

An official source, requesting not to be named, claims that over 450 fire incidents were reported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa between May 23 and June 22. The Hazara and Malakand divisions were the most affected areas, he adds, where over 480 hectares of forest land was damaged.

Adil Zareef, convener of the Sarhad Conservation Network (SCN), a civil society organisation, calls the recent fires “ecoterrorism” and says that they must be thoroughly investigated. His SCN, along with eight other organisations, also launched a petition seeking signatures of citizens. The petition states that the “unprecedented inferno” should have rung “alarm bells” across Pakistan, and asks the Peshawar High Court to take notice of the situation.

Taking notice of the fires, Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman announced standard operating procedures (SOPs) for prevention and control of forest fires. “Although our remit is strictly federal, we cannot ignore forest fires raging across the country due to the heatwave and dry weather that sparks fires,” she had said, speaking to the press last month. “This is why a Climate Change Task force was set up at the ministry, in response to the first fires that started in May this year, to coordinate climate-related actions as quickly as possible.”

While the fires may be out for now, this is a recurring problem and one that must not be put on the backburner for the rest of the year.


A distant view of the jungle on fire
A distant view of the jungle on fire

The fast-changing climate patterns have posed many challenges across Pakistan. The recent, massively destructive fire incidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in the chilghoza (pine nut) forests in Balochistan are bitter reminders of the impact of the global climate emergency.

But even though it is imperative to know the causes of wildfires for future planning and prevention, the forest department lacks modern monitoring mechanisms for determining the exact causes of forest fires. So the authorities instead rely on anecdotal evidence, observations and FIRs, which can be manipulated.

Shehryar Dilawar Khan, a divisional forest officer who also heads the rapid response team in lower Hazara, says that the causes of fire could be divided into two broad categories — environmental causes and human-related causes.

The environmental factors include changes in temperature, wind speed and direction, the level of moisture in the soil and atmosphere, and the duration of dry spells.

Meanwhile, human-related causes include human activity such as locals starting small fires to obtain good grass produce for the upcoming year, using fire to scare off wild animals (common leopards and wild boars in the case of the Hazara division) and igniting fires for cooking or recreational purposes.

Shehryar claims that the majority of the wildfires in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are due to human activity. He says the situation has worsened over the years due to the growing population and access to forest areas. (Official reports tell a different story, detailed below.)

Reportedly, fires are also started intentionally by local people. According to a news report in Dawn, a spokesperson from the provincial forestry, environment and wildlife department had told the newspaper that rumours had been circulating in affected areas that the government would pay compensation for any damage to forests due to wildfires. This, according to the department, led to dozens of incidents of fires intentionally induced by locals.

Authorities have taken notice of these instances and are working on solutions. But tackling the bigger challenges posed by the global climate emergency will not be as simple.


According to a report submitted in the Peshawar High Court by the secretary of the forestry, environment and wildlife department, the majority of the forest fires reported during the season were ground fires in dry grasses.

The department attributes the recent spree of forest fires to climate change. Rising temperature, a key indicator of climate change, evaporates more moisture from the ground, drying out the soil and making vegetation more inflammable. At the same time, winter snowpacks are melting about a month earlier, meaning that forests are drier for longer periods of time.

The report also cites the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s data that found March, April and May 2022 to be among the driest months since 1961. Rainfall was below ‘normal’ levels, with the dry spell in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa being record-breaking. The report also refers to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) and the Met department’s advisories about the extreme temperature during the last two months.

“Many of the important climate change issues were raised at the international platforms at Davos and Stockholm+50,” minister Sherry Rehman had said during a press conference.

With record-breaking torrential rains and flash floods now creating havoc across the country, the urgency of preparing for changing climate patterns cannot be overstated.


Forest fire in the Makhniyal area which borders Islamabad
Forest fire in the Makhniyal area which borders Islamabad

Another persistent issue is the lack of trust and coordination between the local communities and the forest department. This contributed to delaying the response to the forest fires during this season. Saeed Abbasi, a former councillor, says that local communities “hardly took an interest in firefighting as they are annoyed.”

Mateen Abbasi, another councillor from Neelan Bhoto, says that his private property of 500 kanal (about 25 hectares) of forestland was damaged. He blames “negligence” of forest officials for this. Mateen claims that he was implicated in a “fake case” of igniting the fire, because he had brought media attention to the forest under fire.

Locals also say that reports of their involvement in setting fires are grossly exaggerated. Fayaz Mughal, a local activist and journalist, brushes aside the notion that farmers ignite fire to regenerate grass. Taimur Khan, a resident of Khariyan, agrees. A vast majority of the people are opposed to the offence of burning dry grass, he says, adding that locals consider it a gunaah-i-kabirah (a sin of the highest order).

Officials still do not believe these claims. They also hit back at accusations of negligence by pointing out the conditions in which they work.

Mujtaba, a nigehbaan, an official who serves as a watchman, says that the forest staff has limited firefighting equipment and uses local methods which often result in injuries to and deaths of firefighters.

Since 2003, 20 people, including five civilians, have lost their lives during forest firefighting. Among them were nine individuals from Haripur and 11 from other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. These men who lost their lives have been all but forgotten. Families of the officials who lost their lives during 2017 in Haripur say that they have yet to be compensated.

In such a scenario, it is no wonder that the response is often sluggish. And once the fires are not controlled early on, controlling them keeps getting more and more difficult.

It is important that the locals and the officials see things from each other’s perspectives. “They [the authorities] must develop a good working relationship with the community, as they are the key stakeholders of the forest,” Taimur advises. He also suggests that the nigehbaan should be deputed out of native villages.


The causes of forest fires vary and so there can be no one solution. The authorities appear to understand this and have introduced a number of measures to address the problem.

For one, the government has said that action will be taken against those starting forest fires. Second, the authorities are also working towards ensuring that locals remain informed, with announcements being carried out in mosques and schools to inform local communities.

During a press conference Minister Sherry Rehman also announced the instalment of watchtowers with watchers during the fire season. “Moreover, creating fire ditches, involvement of local communities and the establishment of control rooms in all forest fire zones in all provinces, with communication networks, equipment and staff, are important measures,” she added.

According to the fire prevention measures shared by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s forest department, the department also plans to plot and map fire incidents over the past 10 years and a mapping of water resources near hotspots, to be better prepared.

Above all, the issue should not be forgotten until the next drought period and the next big wildfire. Fires must be prevented or stopped before they can cause mass destruction. The livelihood of farmers must be protected. And the lives of locals such as Iqra — a young girl who only wanted to bring back grass for her family’s cattle — must not be put at risk every year.

The writer is a journalist based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He tweets @MSadqat

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 24th, 2022


By Rafiullah Mandokhail

Wildfires raged on for two weeks | File
Wildfires raged on for two weeks | File

Masam Khan, 45, remembers sitting almost lifeless in front of his mudstone home. His children ran around him barefoot, oblivious to why their father was barely moving. Masam desperately looked at the burnt chilghoza (pine nut) trees in front of him. He could barely hold back to his tears, but he had to be strong for his family.

Weeks later, the resident of the Sharghalai area of the Koh-i-Sulaiman region is still lamenting his misfortune. This year, Masam expected to make a sizeable profit from the chilghoza trees he had been nurturing. The trees were meant to support his children and enable them to better deal with the rising inflation. Instead, all his hopes went up in flames with the massive forest inferno.

Masam says that the fires had already begun to spread in their surrounding areas, and his wife and children were afraid that they would reach them too. “They were afraid that the fire would burn them to death in their sleep,” he says, recalling the many sleepless nights his family spent.

As the fires came closer, the local administration and volunteers moved families such as Masam’s to a safer location. “They also arranged tents,” he recalls, adding that he and the other farmers still wanted to watch the situation closely. But when the fire came, there was nothing that they could do.

A couple of months after the inferno, locals are still reeling from the destruction of their chilghoza forest. It will take decades for them to bounce back...

They could only watch as years of hard work and future earnings all burnt to the ground.


When the locals’ battle against the fire began in the Koh-i-Sulaiman region, the rest of the country was unaware of the situation. On May 9, a video circulating on Facebook showed a devastating fire on the highest peak of Koh-i-Sulaiman. At first, the fire erupted in the pine forest in ​​Dhana Sar Darazinda near Dera Ismail Khan. The fire then spread rapidly, fuelled by the gusty winds, to other sides of the mountain.

Roaring ferociously, the wind-driven flames spread rapidly and brought down the tall pine trees on the mountain slopes. On May 16, another fire spread to the Samazai and Sharghalai areas, and travelled up to Zarghoon Zawar.

The community members, majority of whom were direct beneficiaries of the pine forest, were left helpless. Three local men from the Sur Laki village near Koh-i-Sulaiman were burnt to death when they struggled, unsuccessfully, to douse the flames. Their remains were charred beyond recognition.

Finally, the provincial and federal governments took notice of the horrific fire and launched relief operations. The prime minister directed the concerned authorities to take immediate action. Many high-ranking officials and ministers started visiting the camp set up at Sur Laki.

Local volunteers, including Frontier Corps (FC) and Levies personnel and Rescue 1122 personnel, also worked for several days to put the fire out. Fire extinguishing chemicals and 400 fireballs were used to extinguish the fire, but did not prove effective. And army helicopters too tried to extinguish the fire, but their efforts too bore no fruit.

Finally, after 14 days, the Iranian firefighter aircraft Eloshin-76 managed to douse the flames and prevent its further expansion, saving the rest of the forest. The same Iranian plane had recently extinguished wildfires in Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. Besides the aerial sprinkling of water, the traditional method of establishing fire lines and digging ditches also proved effective to prevent the spreading of the fire.

The efforts finally paid off. But for many it was too late. The damage had been done.


Though the forest fire could be a natural phenomenon, the reason behind the Koh-i-Sulaiman blaze is yet to be ascertained. Different officials have their versions. Dostain Jamaldini, the secretary forest and wildlife Balochistan, says that the fire broke out in the Musakhail Zimri area close to the Sulaiman range because of a thunderstorm. But Muhammad Attiq, the district forest officer, is of the view that the wildfires started because of tribal feuds.

The exact cause must be investigated and addressed so similar incidents, with high costs, can be avoided in the future.

It is estimated that at least a third of this valuable forest has been affected. The initial assessment by the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) shows that the fast-moving wildfire raging for almost 15 days burnt down around 1.9 million native chilghoza and olive trees. As per one estimate, it will take about a 100 years to repair the damage.

According to a survey report compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature-Pakistan (IUCN), the blaze damaged an estimated 840,050 chilghoza trees, covering an area of 1,542 hectares of the community-owned pine forest. The fire resulted in a huge loss, amounting to four billion rupees.

On an individual level, many locals have lost not only this year’s earnings and their homes, but also their source for future earnings.

Usually when harvesting season arrives in September, locals get busy trading chilghozas | Photo by the writer
Usually when harvesting season arrives in September, locals get busy trading chilghozas | Photo by the writer

Blessed with breathtaking views and a beautiful landscape, the mighty Sulaiman mountain is also known for the world’s largest chilghoza forest on higher elevations. It is home to native Pinus Gerardiana (pine) and Pinus Wallichiana (Nashtar) trees and rare wild animals. This unique forest has remained the source of livelihood for almost 90 percent of the local community, and nurtures the indigenous flora and fauna.

Pakistan is one of the top five chilghoza-producing countries in the world and, according to some estimates, meets 15 percent of the global demand for the dried fruit. About 74 percent of the total production of pine nuts in the country is produced in the Sulaiman range.

As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) data, the chilghoza forest in the region is spread on 26,000 hectares (approximately 970 trees per hectare of land). The forest annually produces around 675,000 kilogrammes (675 metric tons) of chilghozas, and each fruit-bearing pine tree produces nuts worth Rs25,000 to Rs35,000 per year.

Dr Faizul Bari, the natural resource management adviser at FAO, says that chilghoza trees are not only trees, but a source of employment for the local people. The pine plant usually reaches fruit-bearing age in three decades. There are even 200-year-old trees in the forest, but the majority of them are middle-aged and young. It will take decades to replant trees in this area and bring them to a production level.


Masam says that he used to make a profit of almost one million rupees per year from his chilghoza crop. The area where he was born, brought up and was married lacks roads, electricity, healthcare facilities, quality schools for the children and even clean drinking water. But the pine forest always took care of them.

Masam, there are thousands of others whose troubles have been aggravated manifold. Haji Yaro Sherani from the Ahmedi Darga area also belongs to the custodian community of this important ecosystem rich in natural beauty. Sixty-year-old Haji Yaro, wearing a traditional turban, says they even protected the valuable forest from tribal feuds.

“There was an agreement among the tribes and they were all bound by the decision that, if anyone cuts down a pine tree, [he] would have to pay a fine of one lakh rupees,” he says. “In order to save this forest from being cut down, we took the risk of tribal feuds, but all our efforts went in vain.”

Similarly, Muhammad Kharoti, a trader by profession, has been involved in the chilghoza business for the last 10 years. He has been buying pine nuts and selling them in other parts of the country.

Kharoti says that during the last two years, Covid-19 and the closure of highways and markets had badly affected their business but, this year, the business community had hoped to recover from the previous losses. “In the past, few people were associated with the business, but today a large number of people have thronged the market,” he says. “Now they all are experiencing an uncertain situation.”

Chilghoza harvesting season begins in September-October. After harvesting, the cones are filled in bags and brought down on camels from the highest peaks. After processing in a traditional manner, the nuts are transported to the Zhob market and then to Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Quetta, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi.

“People here have been very dependent on this cash crop,” Kharoti says, adding that the locals are very concerned about their future. “The forest fire has left a heavy negative impact not only on the locals, but also on the traders and the entire region as well,” he adds.

Barely two months since the blaze, media attention and the news cycle has moved on from the devastating fires. But for the locals dependent on this economy, their nightmare is far from over.


Dr Tariq Shah, a prominent researcher at the Balochistan University of Information Technology Engineering and Management Sciences (Buitems), suggests that the international community and the federal government should come up with a comprehensive plan and take concrete steps, both in the short and long term, for covering the losses caused by the inferno. He stresses that alternative earning arrangements must also be made for the affectees until they can start benefiting from the pine forest again.

“Recognition of the potential of this region and its chilghoza trade by the government and non-governmental organisations has been an important step,” he says. “But, surely, a lot more work remains to be done.”

“The chilghoza forest is owned by the local people and has remained the backbone of their economy,” says Bazmir Khan, a social activist and environmentalist. “[The forest] creates a lucrative socioeconomic opportunity for the local communities to profit from trading pine nuts,” he says, adding that the pine forest is a tax-free zone.

Forests play a crucial role in developing the rural and local economy. Balochistan, in general, and Zhob and the neighbouring Sherani districts, in particular, are known for their mesmerising natural beauty. But, unfortunately, little has been done for the development of these regions that hold both geographical and historical importance.

The fires brought some attention to these forgotten lands. They must not be neglected again now that the fire is out.

The writer is a Balochistan-based journalist. He can be reached at: