Fires raged across the thick forests of Susunia Hills in Bankura district in southern West Bengal for approximately 18 hours, till forest officials, local police and villagers brought them under control on Wednesday afternoon.
“The fires may have been man-made. We are not sure. By 6 am (on Wednesday), forest staff, the police and some villagers got it under control,” said Prasenjit Chatterjee, officer-in-charge of Chhatna police station, whose jurisdiction the Susunia forests come under. By nightfall on Tuesday, the fires had spread across the hills of the forest.
“The hills are steep, so forest staff could not go in to control it last night,” Esha Bose, forest ranger at Susunia Hills, told The Indian Express.
The topography of the forest is largely steep terrain with dry deciduous sal and sepun trees, many of which are very old. While the origins of the fire have not been confirmed yet, police sources believe it may have been sparked by bidis thrown on the forest floor without being properly put out.
However, officials said this is also forest-fire season. “It is very hot, and friction between dry leaves may have also caused the fire. We don’t know how the fire started as yet,” said Bose.
On Tuesday night, the local fire department faced difficulties reaching the hills because the large fire trucks were unable to access the steep slopes and there were no other routes.
Despite the forest being surrounded by roads on all sides, water hoses were not long enough to access the interiors of the hilly forest. By morning, Chhatna forest officials and members of the ‘Forest Protection Committee’, a local organisation comprising residents of Siulibona, Pahar Bedia, Bharatpur and Susunia villages on the fringes of Susunia forest, got together with local police and civic volunteers, and entered the forest on foot to extinguish the fires.
By late morning on Wednesday, Chatterjee told The Indian Express that a second round of smaller clusters of fires were observed in some parts in the interiors of Susunia forest, but no damage to people and property had been recorded.
The presence of roads on all sides of the forest also prevented the fire from spreading to the villages, he added. Bose said that the villagers and forest officials were still out on the slopes on Wednesday afternoon, looking out for smaller fires after the situation had been brought under control.
“There is no trace of animals who may have been injured or died in the fires so far, but we will monitor the interiors of the forest for the next two to three days,” said Bose. “Forest fires happen every year during these months, but these fires occurred during the night so it became uncontrollable,” she added.
The Bankura (North) District Forest Office has been engaging in public announcement drives where forest officials travel to villages and use loud-speakers to raise awareness about forest fires, their impact on the environment and to inform people that starting intentional fires in the forest is a punishable offence.
“I grew up in Susunia village and my father still lives in Susunia. We don’t know how the fires started in this case, but in this season, there is a tradition where people light fires in the forest,” said Sanghita Mitra, a graphic designer in Bankura town in an interview with The Indian Express.
“The fires could be seen even early in the evening on Tuesday. The forest department had told locals they had put it out, but by late evening, the blazes were bigger.”
Residents living in areas surrounding Susunia Hills began sharing images on social media of the forest fires photographed at night, showing the bright orange flames of the fire in stark contrast to the darkness of the night.
The hills of Susunia are known for their diversity of flora and fauna, especially medicinal plants, and are also an important archaeological site in West Bengal. Over the decades, in the Susunia Hills and in surrounding areas, archaeologists have discovered several prehistoric findings and a large number of fossils of vertebrates, among other historical artifacts.
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