Roshan Lal, 66, is livid. He is yet to come to terms with the damage caused to a forest near his village, that caught fire on June 12.

Lal, an agriculturist from Jangi village in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, told Mongabay-India that he had not seen a forest fire of this scale before. The fire spread over 3 km and engulfed hundreds of trees and green cover. It took around three days to extinguish the fire but by then, over 2,000 bighas (161 hectares) of forest land had been affected by the fire.

Reginald Royston, District Forest Officer, Kinnaur, informed Mongabay-India that the report about the exact damage due to the forest fire was still being compiled. However, on the ground, the destruction is quite visible. The fire has affected the ecologically and economically significant deodar and blue pine trees valued for their timber, he said.

“Hundreds of chilgoza pine trees, which produce edible nuts and are a major source of livelihood for residents of Jangi village, were destroyed,” said Lal. The affected area, was also home to Himalayan tahr and the black bear, according to Jangi residents. They suspect human tampering as the reason for the fire.

However, District Forest Officer Reginald Royston said since the fire occurred on high mountain slopes where there is no human habitation, the department was not able to reach any conclusion whether the fire incident was accidental or a deliberate attempt. “But one possible reason is the prolonged dry spell in the area, which massively reduced the moisture level of the forest, thereby making them more prone to acute fire,” Royston clarified.

Roshan Lal from Jangi is worried about the damage to ecologically and economically important pine trees that were destroyed in the recent forest fire near his village. Photo credit: Special arrangement

Record-breaking incidents

The forest area in Himachal Pradesh, covers 66% of the state’s geographical area and is rich in biodiversity, playing a vital role in preserving the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.

The rising fire incidents in Himachal Pradesh have become a major cause of worry for authorities and citizens, especially when forests are not only crucial for the state’s environmental, ecological and economic well-being, but also provide environmental services to the lowland states.

Several districts of Himachal Pradesh have seen forest fires this year, reveals government data. As per the data shared by Himachal Pradesh’s Forest Protection and Fire Control Division with Mongabay-India, the state recorded 2,763 fire incidents from April 1 to June 30 this year, the usual forest fire season, with an average of 31 fires per day.

Dharamshala district topped the chart with 618 fire incidents in this period, followed by Chamba (522), Mandi (364), Shimla (286), Hamirpur (285), Rampur (190), Bilaspur (151) and Solan (110). This, according to the division’s records, is the highest figure recorded by the division since its opening in Bilaspur in 2007.

Comparatively, in previous years, fire incidents in an entire year have been lower than the 2,763 incidents recorded in the state so far. The fiscal year 2021-’22 saw 1,275 fire incidents. while 2020-21 had 1,045 fires and 2019-20 had 1,445 fires. Until this year, the highest number of forest fires in a year were in 2009-’10 (1,906) and 2018-’19 (2,544).

About 23,239 hectares of forest area, which is about 0.45% of the state’s area, were affected in these fire incidents. The total valuation of the impact of the fires was Rs. 64 crore, data revealed. Of the total affected area, 18,600 hectares were part of natural forest areas, and another 4,500 hectares were new plantations, for which the forest department spends a significant amount of money each year on increasing forest cover.

In the efforts to extinguish the forest fires, three forest department personnel – one each in Una, Renukaji and Shimla – died during field operations.

Ground fires

Speaking to Mongabay-India, Anil Sharma, Chief Conservator of Forest, Forest Protection and Fire Control Division, said that most of the forest fire incidents in Himachal were that of ground fires.

“Internationally, forest fires are classified into two-three major categories in which the crown fire (which spreads through the crown (top) of the trees and consumes all the part of the tree), is the most intense and difficult to control,” Sharma explained. “Another category is the ground fire in which loss to the forest is there, but it mostly burns its ground cover and affects the soil.”

“In this year’s forest fires, the incidents of crown fires were very limited. It was mostly ground fires. There is a chance of revival of green cover of the fire-damaged forest following a good rainy season,” he added.

He also revealed that the state’s chir pine forest, which is spread over 1,259 km and constitute 3.4% of the total forest area of the state is more prone to fire incidents due to its physiology. The department has identified 2,026 beats as per the sensitivity level of the forest fires out of which 339 beats are highly sensitive.

Dry weather

Chief Conservator of Forest Anil Sharma told Mongabay-India that the forest fires in most cases are the result of human negligence. “For instance, if someone threw a burning cigarette or if farmers ignore some burnt leftovers in their fields adjoining the forest areas, it could result in the forest area catching fire,” said Sharma. “Some fires were intentional too, for the purpose of getting good quality of grass fodder after monsoon.”

“But the prolonged dry spell and higher than normal temperature this season in Himachal actually exacerbated the situation,” said Sharma adding, “The dry leaves in the forest became highly inflammable and spread the fire in forests.”

Fire in a forest area near the Jangi village of Himachal’s Kinnaur district on June 12. Photo credit: Special arrangement

As per the data obtained from Himachal Pradesh Meteorological Department, the state witnessed 95% and 90% deficient rainfall in March and April respectively, which according to the director Surender Paul was the highest since 2002. In the months of May and June too, the rainfall deficiency was 23% and 48% respectively, with the upper reaches of the Himalayas witnessing unprecedented rainfall deficiency.

Combined with this, the state recorded 27 heatwave days, the third-highest in the country after Rajasthan (39) and Madhya Pradesh (38), revealed the report by the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit, based on the data from India Meteorological Department.

While the Met Department predicts normal rainfall from July onwards, Jiya Lal, an environmental activist based in Kinnaur told Mongabay-India, “We all must introspect why there is a huge variation in rainfall and snowfall patterns in the state in past one decade or so.”

Lal said that it is the direct consequences of the large-scale development projects that have disturbed overall state’s ecology. “Besides, global as well as other domestic climate change phenomena is helping in recurrence of dry spells more often than before in Himachal,” Lal added. “The net result is immense damage to forest resources, wildlife and the environment.”

On how forest fire incidents can be controlled, Chief Conservator of Forest Anil Sharma said that it is impossible to stop all fire incidents. The key is “staying aware”.

“We conduct mass contact programmes with the local people, panchayats, school children, to make them aware about the damages caused by forest fires to the forest resources, wildlife and the environment,” he said.

Sharma said that they have also tied up with the Forest Survey of India in Dehradun, and through the help of satellites the authorities from there send an alert whenever they notice smoke billowing in any part of the state’s forest area.

“This helps us to reach the spot at the earliest and take all possible means to stop it from spreading further,” he concluded.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.