A combination of heatwave conditions, dry weather, and poorly equipped responders has led to a fivefold increase in major forest fires in Uttarakhand since January 1 this year, when compared to the corresponding period in 2023, data from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) showed.

According to state officials, 11 people have died in Uttarakhand forest fires that have ravaged at least 1,747 ha of land this year.(File)

A total of 1,260 instances of forest fires were registered this year till Wednesday, the maximum in the country, even as the figure for the same period stood at 241 in 2023 – a year when Uttarakhand did not figure among the top five states that suffered forest fires. While state government officials admitted they were caught unawares by the intensity of the fires that they have had to deal with, experts laid some of the blame at the door of the administration, alleging that firefighters have been left to mitigate damage without sufficient resources.

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According to state officials, 11 people have died in Uttarakhand forest fires that have ravaged at least 1,747 ha of land this year. The state reported 149 cases in the last seven days alone. The forest fires this year have been the deadliest in the state since 2021, when eight people died.

To be sure, data shared by FSI, the ministry of environment and forests body which is responsible for assessing and monitoring the forest resources in India, said that while Uttarakhand topped the country in forest fires, Andhra Pradesh recorded the second highest number of forest fires (1,135) followed by Odisha (1,128), Madhya Pradesh (968) and Chhattisgarh (962) this year. Last year, Odisha topped the list with 1,908 instances, followed by Chhattisgarh (1,164) and Andhra Pradesh (1,158).

“The forest department did not anticipate so many forest fires, and of such intensity. The winter preparation works to prevent summer fires, such as digging of forest lines was not done in many parts of the state. Work was also not carried out to remove the pine needles that fall during the summer season and are highly inflammable,” a department official said, seeking anonymity.

Data from FSI also reveals that fires that erupted in mid-April have continued the entire summer season, barring a brief lull in the last week of May when it was hit by rainfall and hail.

The hill state was reeling under heatwave conditions from May 29 to June 19, with temperatures ranging between 40 and 44 degrees Celsius in some areas. Deficient rainfall in the months of May and June is also believed to be the reason for the out-of-control wildfires in the hill state. While the state received 51mm rainfall in May, 21% below normal, it recorded 21.2 mm rain till Wednesday, which is 75% below normal. There was, however, brief respite on Wednesday with places like Mussoorie, Binsar and Roorkee receiving some rain in the evening.

Nishant Verma, nodal officer for forest fires, said: “Since November 1, 1,256 incidents of forest fires have been reported in the state in which over 1,747.72 hectares of forest land have been damaged. Of this, 719 hectares of damage have been reported in the Garhwal region, 886 hectares in the Kumaon region and 142 hectares in the administrative wildlife regions.”

Environmentalist Ajay Singh Rawat claimed the state forest department is ill-equipped to deal with wildlife fires as no fire fighting equipment or gear is provided to forest personnel on ground. “Such a large number of forest fires cannot be dealt with effectively unless the forest department involves local residents, trains them and provides them with protective gear. If in a particular village, 100 locals are trained and given protective gear, along with the forest personnel, they can effectively tackle the blaze,” he said.

Several videos on social media of forest guards trying to douse the wildlife fires, using branches of trees, have raised safety concerns. At least nine people, including four forest fire personnel, have sustained injuries during such operations so far, according to the forest department. In certain cases, the army or Indian Air Force helicopters were roped in by authorities to prevent the blaze from engulfing residential areas.

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Besides keeping a record on the number of forest fires, FSI also registers forest fire alerts – a satellite-based early warning alert to flag a spark of fire in an area. Data showed that Uttarakhand recorded 19,973 forest fire alerts so far, nearly five times more in comparison to 4,862 last year.

Meanwhile, Himachal Pradesh has recorded the second highest number of forest fires (130) in the past week, since June 12. This is followed by Jammu & Kashmir (62), Uttar Pradesh (12) and Punjab (7). In the same period, Uttarakhand recorded 2,296 forest fire alerts, followed by Himachal (1,638), Jammu & Kashmir (887), Uttar Pradesh (132) and Punjab (91), FSI data revealed.