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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Early summer, lack of rain spark fires at reserve, Odisha on edge

The Simlipal National Park and Tiger Reserve in northern Odisha last saw a major fire in 2015.

Written by Aishwarya Mohanty | Mayurbhanj |
Updated: March 7, 2021 9:27:48 am
Firefighting teams on a hill near Podagada village, at the Simlipal National Park and Tiger Reserve. (Express Photo: Aishwarya Mohanty)

IT’S A race against time in one of the largest biosphere reserves of the country as early onset of summer plus lack of precipitation mean forest fires have now been sparking for more than a fortnight, with incidents reported continuously since March 1. The Simlipal National Park and Tiger Reserve in northern Odisha last saw a major fire in 2015.

On Friday afternoon, a 10-member patrol team of the Odisha Fire Services approached smoke billowing out of a hill near Podagada village only to discover flames across a small hillock — their third spotting for the day. They got to work armed with a blower and a machine carrying 20 litres of water, spraying over the fire for nearly 3 km.

With such fires usually seen till at least May, the Fire Department is looking at a long summer. The consolation is that the situation seems to be under control, with the fires not reaching the core tiger area. While on Wednesday last week, 399 fire points had been identified in the reserve, Thursday saw only 26 new points, which were doused, further falling to 15 new fires Friday.

Fires have been reported from eight of the 21 ranges of the reserve, and also other forest ranges in nearby districts. As per a Forest Survey Report, active fire events in forest areas stood at 359 in Odisha on Saturday, the highest in the country. Union Minister of Environment and Forest Prakash Javdekar has taken up the matter with the state, with Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik assuring that the situation is under control.

The patrol teams at Simlipal get inputs twice a day on fire locations via satellite images — between 1 am and 2 am, then 1 pm and 2 pm. “If we come to know about a fire at night, we go at night itself. If the fire is not dealt with immediately, it can spread to the crown of trees, making it difficult to tackle. Apart from satellite inputs, we continuously patrol the area and also depend on human intel,” said Jiten Kisku, forester, Jamuani, who oversees three sections as posts for two are vacant, along with 10 ‘fire watchers’. Smoke, he added, is still the most reliable sign.

A report by the department says almost all the cases are “anthropogenic”, or started by humans, “out of which maximum cases are to facilitate growing of succulent grass/ leaves for domestic cattle, collection of NTFP (non-timber forest products) like Mahua and eradication of ticks & insects”.

The fires have started earlier following a virtually no-rainfall January and February, and coincided with shedding of leaves by deciduous trees, helping spread the flames. “Due to higher temperatures and wind, the firefighting has been challenging,” said Prakash Jena, Assistant Fire Officer, Baripada.

Regional Chief Conservator of Forests, Simlipal Range, Yogajaya Anand said they had managed to ensure there was no loss of life. “There have been sporadic incidents and these have been doused after being brought to notice immediately.”

With National Tiger Conservation Act guidelines forbidding entry into core areas inhabited by tigers, the firefighting is confined to buffer zones. “So far we have no information on any fire incident in the core area, or necessary steps can be taken,” Kisku said. The core area is less susceptible to fires compared to the fringe zone as it has mostly semi-evergreen plantation.

The Forest Department has been carrying out awareness programmes in villages around the reserve to deter people from knowingly or unknowingly starting fires that can cause huge losses to flora and fauna.

Wildlife activist Bhanumitra Acharya said poachers are known to set small patches on fire to divert wild animals. Former wildlife warden of Simlipal Sanyukta Basa said villages are also known to do the same so as to clear plots for growing crops, or to get rid of dry leaves for easy collection of mahua flowers.

There are around 1,200 villages near the reserve, housing about 4.5 lakh people, three-fourth of whom are tribals.

Arta Dehuri from Jashipur block said they realise the dangers of playing with fire in the forest area. “If the administration and Forest Department involve the community more, we can together help prevent such incidents. For generations we have survived with the forests, we can never harm them.”

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