In the last three years, Pune district has seen at least 199 forest fires, which have devoured 875.54 hectares and led to an estimated loss of Rs 1.18 lakh, said forest officials. Large swathes of grasslands have also been damaged due to the fires, said Vivek Khandekar, chief conservator of forest (Pune), territorial.
While dry grass and hot winds usually cause forest fires, many such fires are also deliberately set by villagers, said Khandekar. Explaining why they may be doing so, Dr Ajay Deshmukh, senior veterinary officer at the Wildlife SOS Manikdoh leopard rescue centre at Junnar, said, “There is a myth that burning grass can kill germs in the soil and lead to better pasture”.
Forest officials also admit that majority of the fires are caused due to human interference. “We are conducting a campaign to educate villagers, tourists and pilgrims about the damage caused by forest fires, which harm the eco-system and result in loss of valuable timber,” Khandekar added. There were 31 forest fires in Pune district in 2014-15, 59 in 2015-16 and 80 in 2016-17. In December last year, Pune district had seen as many as 29 forest fires, said officials. While there were no deaths due to forest fires in the last three years, on January 3 this year, a forest guard, Sadashiv Nagthane, succumbed to burns he sustained in a forest fire in Bhor sub-division.
As per data from Pune Circle Forest office, there were 22 forest fires in 2014-15, 41 in 2015-16 and 79 in 2016-17 in Bhor sub-division. The Bhor sub division includes tehsils of Bhor, Saswad and Velha. In Junnar sub-division of Pune district, there were 46 forest fires in 2014-15, 75 in 2015-16 and 69 in 2016 – 17, damaging over 650 hectares of land.