Around 22 hectares of forest land was destroyed on Tuesday after six fires broke out in various areas of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Forest officials are certain that the fires were “man made” and part of a bigger strategy, sources said. One person has been arrested in this connection. The accused identified as Rajesh Kathod Mokashi was arrested from Kawesar area on Monday night. “The fires started on Sunday. There were six different reports of fire from five different areas,” said an officer from the Forest department. The Range Forest Officer of Yeoor range, Sanjay Waghmode said, “Mokashi was arrested from Kawesar, Manpada in Thane. He was caught red handed trying to start a fire on the periphery of the forest reserve land. He was produced in court and handed over to forest department custody.”
On Wednesday afternoon, another fire was nipped in the bud by volunteers, honorary wildlife warden Pawan Sharma informed. “The forest department and wildlife volunteers who have specific permission have increased patrolling. Since it is summer already, there are a few incidents of forest fires. However, even in extreme temperatures, this frequency is unheard of. So, our guess is that people are burning the forest trails to clear a way for them to pass into the forest area,” he said.
According to Sharma, various groups are planning to include civilians living on the periphery of SGNP in surveillance efforts. “In Thane and Mulund, the properties on the edge of the forest generally have a vantage point. We are planning to connect them to the forest department through a helpline number. This way, the residents can report not only fire but any suspicious movement around the forest…,” he said.
The 22 hectares destroyed by the fire have a sizable flora and fauna. “The animals, not just the trees are affected. Their movements change, their behaviour is affected. It’s a bad sign for all forest life,” Sharma said. According to forest officials, they are investigating areas that are more risk prone. “Since there are multiple entry and exits, we can’t put our guards at every spot. On Tuesday, there were fires in Mulund, Nahur, Yeoor, Bhayandarpada and Thane. We are checking if there is a pattern….,” an officer said. Waghmode said, “We will make more arrests after investigation.”
Anwar Ahmed, Director, SGNP said, “Generally wild animals move away from fire. We have not received any reports of casualties yet. However, small animals or insects would definitely have been affected. These were surface fires and so no trees were affected,” he added. Ahmed said these fires are not natural forest fires. “95 per cent of them are man made fires. A major reason is people burning crop residue in their fields. These fields are near our area. Though it is a routine practice, the problem arises when they do not take care to prevent the fire from spreading into our areas. We need to start educating them about this,” he added. According to forest officials, there were a few more incidents of fire in the area on Wednesday. However, they were of much smaller compared to the fires on Tuesday.
The residents around the forest are on high alert. “The Yogi hills fire went on till 3.50am on Wednesday. The fire was so strong that we could see it burning till late into the night, even from our rooms that are not directly facing the forest,” said Samir Dani, a resident of Mulund in the periphery of the the forest. At Bhayandarpada, Raju Bhoir, a shopkeeper who sells snacks said, “It started all of a sudden and it felt like it would come down the hill and burn us all. We could hear the cracking sound of wood burning.”
The forest officials, helped by NGOs and local residents, fought through the night to put out the fire on Tuesday and it was extinguished around 3 am on Wednesday. Among those at the site was Sunish Subramanian, the honorary wildlife warden, Mumbai region. He proposes to write to SGNP seeking a ban on people’s entry into the core area of the National Park. “We noticed there were a lot of small temples deep inside the park and these have diyas lit in them. People are definitely walking in and out of the park and while lighting these diyas they might by accident start a fire. In any case their entry must be banned,” he said.
Meanwhile, the fire department of Thane is helping to fight the fires. “If we get distress calls, we go, but generally the first department has a special team. The most we can do is spray water from as close as possible,” said a fire fighter from Thane. “We have different tactics… The job of putting out forest fire is not easy at all and it always ends with forest destruction,” said a volunteer with the fire department who was on the spot on Wednesday when fire in Thane region was put out.