It rained on Wednesday evening. The overpowering smell of woodsmoke was finally replaced by that of wet earth. The elements offered some respite to the forests, people, the birds and animals of Uttarakhand, just as human intervention appeared to be futile.
It had been a fiery few days. Instead of waking up to the sight of the snowy Himalayas, heavy smoke and the smell of burnt trees have dominated the atmosphere.
A week earlier, most residents of Kalika Estate, a neighbourhood on the edge of Ranikhet, had finished supper on a seemingly quiet Wednesday evening when a sudden infernal glow, coupled with the cry of the fire brigade’s siren, startled them.
At the time, I was at my home in Banolia Village, having moved to Ranikhet a couple of months ago to write a book and teach at a primary school. I was alarmed by the sight and smell of fire, with the needles and bark of the chir pine tree crackling beneath a raging blaze. I rushed to the spot, about 20 metres, away where a few local had already gathered. Limited to sticks, twigs and torches in their battle against the blaze, the arrival of four firefighters was a confidence booster.
Having weathered many a fire over the years, the locals applied a commonsensical approach. They arranged dried pine needles in a line and set fire to them, ensuring that the raging fire would not go any further than these already burnt needles. Simply put, it’s almost like fighting fire with fire.
The effort appeared to be successful, with the fires kept at bay. A primary school and a popular resort in the line of fire had been spared. The fire brigade used their water cannons to minimise the damage, even as the wind changed the direction of the fire. The last flickering blaze provided hope that the worst was perhaps over and everyone returned to their homes.
As it turned out, we were naïve to imagine a better and brighter Thursday. The morning confirmed that fire and winder had colluded to return from the other side of the neighbourood, charring the remaining half of the hilltop – including my favourite reading spot tucked away in a corner that offers a panoramic view of the Himalayas.
Standing 50 metres away, I could see the fire reach the Forest Reserve across the road dividing the Kalika Estate. The billowing smoke nearly blinded the passerby. As darkness descended, poor visibility on the road that rips through on the either side of the beautiful and famed Golf Course, the most popular tourist attraction in Ranikhet, resulted in a couple of minor accidents.
Firefighters tried their best. We tried managing the traffic amid the haze. Everyone stayed low to avoid suffocation. Firefighters used the water cannons till the last drop.
Over the next two days, the fire did not spare the fringe of the Golf Course and persistent winds pushed the flames as far as the outer campus of the Kumaon regiment of the Indian Army.
By Sunday, there was enough hue and cry across the country to prompt the state functionaries to seek reinforcements from the army to battle the fire. Army and state personnel were on the job for the next couple of days.
On Tuesday evening, personnel from the State Disaster Response Force triumphantly strode down from the hills of Kalika on Tuesday evening after freshly containing a fire.
They took a break at a rundown tea stall just around the bend and recounted their conquest. Within an hour of them leaving the place, a glow in the distance drove home the reality about their battle being only half won.
All photos by Sai Prasad Mohapatra.