Prolonged dry spells, especially in the Western Ghats, have turned into a big headache for the Karnataka Forest Department, which has had to contend with at least 2,600 incidents of forest fires over a five-week period starting in February.
“Over 2,600 incidents of forest fires (have been) reported across the state from 1 February to 6 March, 2023. Of the total incidents, Belagavi is worst affected with 245 incidents — followed by Shivamogga’s Bhadravathi with 178 incidents,” as per data provided by the Forest Resource Management (FRM) wing of the department.
It added: “Over 100 cases of forest fire have been reported in each of the following districts: Chitradurga, Chikkaballapura, Uttar Kannada, and Tumakuru. Around 1,200 hectares of forest have been affected so far in the state. The damage is severe and a survey is underway.”
In the last three years (2019 to 2022), over 4,500 forest fires were reported in Karnataka.
“Around 80-90 percent of the forest fire incidents are intentional and the remaining are natural. Most of the incidents occur because people who dwell in villages surrounding the forest set ablaze certain areas for various reasons,” an official attached to the FRM told South First on condition of anonymity.
He further added: “In the remaining cases, the fire has been reported in the deep forests and high terrain because of the prolonged dry spell and strong winds, mainly in high grasslands. Compared to the last three years, this year the incidents of forest fires have risen rapidly.”
Even wildlife enthusiasts have expressed concern over the increase in forest fire incidents and demanded quick action from the government.
ಗಂಧದ ಗುಡಿ ನಾ ಉಳಿಸು 🙏#ಪಶ್ಚಿಮಘಟ್ಟಉಳಿಸಿ #SaveWestrenGhats@TheWesternGhat @karnatabala@nalmeyamalenadu
VC : @SreeDharaNEL56 pic.twitter.com/z9RGCxFiqI
— ಶಶಾಂಕ್ | Shashank (@ShashankJM9) March 8, 2023
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3 killed, many injured
Forest Department personnel are working on a war footing to douse the fires. However, two of them and a teenager have died due to these blazes in Karnataka since February.
In one tragic incident, a forest beater was killed, a deputy range forest officer was critically injured, and two forest watchers suffered minor burn injuries while engaged in firefighting in the deep forests at Manibeedu near Kadumane Estate in Sakleshpur taluka of Hassan district on 17 February.
“DRFO Manjunath, beat forester Sundaresh, forest watchers Tunagesh and Mahesh and two others were on patrol duty. They spotted wild blaze near Manibeedu forest area and rushed to douse it,” a forest official attached to Sakleshpur forest range told South First,
“While dousing the fire, beat forester Sundaresh suffered 65 percent burn injuries and succumbed at a private hospital in Bengaluru.”
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“Manjunath has also suffered 75 percent burn injuries. He has been admitted to a private hospital in Bengaluru since 18 March. According to his wife, who is a nurse at the hospital, Manjunath is in stable condition at present,” detailed the official.
Juje Louis Siddhi, a forest watcher (contract employee), died due to electrocution while extinguishing a fire in the forest area near Telangara village in the Yellapur forest division on 27 February.
In a heart wrenching incident, a 15-year-old girl from Koratagere taluka of Tumakuru became a victim of a forest fire. The incident occurred while she was passing through a forest to attend a fair at Devarayanadurga on 7 February. She is the first civilian casualty of a forest fire in the state.
In the wild blaze incidents, there are no reports of any wild animals being killed or injured so far, claimed forest officials.
Hope CM Bommai & BJP Govt will find time from issuing illegal “short term tenders” & splurging crores on PM’s visit to save the invaluable flora & fauna of #Karnataka.
Putting some of the live pictures from an hour ago.
Treat it as an emergency! pic.twitter.com/WiogY6p7lM
— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) March 10, 2023
‘Most fires intentional’
Officials and wildlife wardens hold that the people residing around the forest area responsible for the increase in forest fires in the state.
“Every year, over 90 percent of the incidents of forest fire are intentional. The local people deliberately start fires in the forest either because of vendetta against the forest officials or local issues. This is one of the biggest concerns of the department during the summer,” a range forest officer (RFO) attached to Gadag Forest Division told South First.
He further pointed out: “We have booked many cases against people who are purposely setting off wildfires. But we are unable to initiate action or complete the investigation due to the intervention of local political leaders.”
The officials did not disclose the total number of cases booked on the local for intentionally setting off fires in the forest.
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Working with locals
In order to tackle this issue, the forest officials have been hiring locals, on a contract basis, for about five months as forest watchers for the past few years. These contract forest watchers usually work only from January to mid-May, which is the peak season for forest fires.
Stressing on building a good network with the locals, wildlife expert Tejus RS told South First: “The rise in forest fire incidents is very alarming. The key aspect of controlling the intentional forest fire incidents is developing a good rapport and intelligence network with the localities.”
“The department has to work in such a way that it gives responsibility of the forest to its owners, who reside around the forest. The forest officials should encourage more localities to work. Importantly, they should be paid well. There is no other alternative to prevent this,” opined Tejus.
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Forest Department goes hi-tech
In a bid to quickly initiate action against forest fires, the Forest Department has gone hi-tech by launching the Karnataka Remote Sensing Application (KRSA), which provides real-time information on such fires.
Vanashree Vipin Singh, a senior official at the Forest Resource Management wing, told South First: “We have launched the remote sensing application to fight the forest fire incidents. With the help of a satellite, this application provides real-time information about the forest fire incidents that occur in any part of the state.”
“As soon as a fire occurs, the satellite sends information to the fire monitoring cell. The cell will quickly send an alert to the officials concerned about the fire. The beat foresters and forest watchers will rush to the spot to douse the fire. This is helping us to quickly act on the incidents. We are able to avert many major fire incidents,” Singh said.
On plans to upgrade the tech to douse forest fires, Singh said: “We are planning to use drones and thermal sensors in the coming days. The proposal is yet to be made. We will not be able to use helicopters because it is difficult to use in the high terrain and for other technical reasons.”
The department had sent a proposal for ₹1 crore to the Union government seeking the nod to use a helicopter to douse fires. “The proposal has been rejected by the Union government,” said an official, who wished to be unnamed.
Need for local support
“The department should stress on developing a good intelligence network with localities to control forest fires instead of going hi-tech such as using helicopters and drones to fight the forest fire. Good management by the senior forest officials is the key,” wildlife expert Tejus stressed.
He said: “From lower rank officials to beat foresters to forest watchers should be kept in good humour. The authorities have to practice an award and reward culture to encourage the workers to do better.”
“The higher officials should also ensure that the forest watchers, who are contract employees, are being given proper food at regular intervals and wages are paid on time. This will resolve human and forest conflict to a certain extent,” added Tejus.
Poor budgetary allocation
Senior officials blame the Centre and state governments for poor budgetary allocation for the Forest Department.
The Union budgetary allocation for forest fire prevention and management has been doubled for the next fiscal year when compared to the 2022-23 fiscal year. In the 2023-24 fiscal budget, the government has announced ₹51 crore for fire management, up from just ₹26.18 crore the previous year.
But that is still not enough, say officials. A senior forest official told South First on condition of anonymity: “The Centre and state governments have to understand the seriousness of forest fires and other issues of the department. The Union budgetary allocation for the Forest Department is not enough.”
“It is because of the poor grant allocation that we are unable to upgrade or get equipped with modern technology to fight the forest fires. There is hardly any financial support from the state government,” the official said.
Meanwhile, the state government has announced ₹100 crore for an eco-budget to compensate for the negative effects on the forest system. In the previous budget, the government had not made any allocation for forest fire management.