Devotees on pilgrimage in the Vaishno Devi Yatra in Jammu & Kashmir were stranded after 25,000 pilgrims had registered for a trek at 3:30 pm on May 23rd, 2018 due to a forest fire in Trikuta Hills. The fire in Trikuta Hills led to the pilgrimage being suspended since the afternoon of May 23rd with 10,000 pilgrims stranded in Katra base camp and 3,000 being shifted to a safer location nearby Himkoti Marg. The shrine board on learning of the fire in Trikuta Hills suspended the Vaishno Devi Yatra from Tarakote Marg and Ban Ganga. On the 24th however, after the fire in Trikuta Hills was partially controlled, the pilgrimage was resumed via the old Ban Ganga route. The route through Himkoti Marg however, was closed until the afternoon of the 24th.
The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the shrine board deployed about 200 personnel who managed to control smoke coming out of stretches of forest engulfed by the fire in Trikuta Hills. Apart from them, the Indian Air Force deployed two MI-17 helicopters to combat the fire in Trikuta Hills (HT, 2018) along with helicopters also deployed by the fire department for the same purpose. In order to prevent the fire from spreading, trenches were also dug in the possible paths of the fire in Trikuta Hills (The New Indian Express, 2018). There have been no reports of injuries to pilgrims as a result of the fire in Trikuta Hills.
Situated at a height of 5,200 feet in Jammu & Kashmir, Vaishno Devi shrine is among the holiest pilgrimage destinations in India and more than 10 million pilgrims visit the shrine annually. The deity in the shrine is popularly known as Mata Vaishno Devi and is believed to be a mother who fulfils whatever her children wish for. The shrine is located in a cave at a trek of about 12 km from the base camp of Katra. There are no statues or idols in the cave and the shrine is in the shape of three natural rock formations which are called the Pindies (Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, 2018). The management of the shrine and regulation of the pilgrimage is provided by the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board.
The predominantly Himalayan state of Uttarakhand has also been battling forest fires in the summer of 2018. On May 23rd, different parts of the state reported 295 new incidents of forest fires. Over the past few days, the total number of incidents of forest fires were 1,036. The worst hit area is a Garhwal region, with Pauri district being the worst hit. Other districts such as Nainital, Almora, Champawat and Bageshwar in the Kumaon division and Chamoli, Tehri, Uttarkashi and Pauri divisions in Garhwal have reported forest fires (India Today, 2018). These have been the focus of attention for forest department officials in controlling the forest fires.
How do Forest Fires Occur?
Although the exact cause for the fire in Trikuta Hills is not known at present, a discussion can be provided over how forest fires can possibly occur. Forest fires can be caused naturally or by humans. Naturally occurring forest fires occur out of chance occurrences, and generally, these forest fires are initiated by a bolt of lightning. Naturally occurring forest fires, however, can also occur out of spontaneous combustion of combustible matter in the forest such as leaves and sawdust (Runesson, undated). Volcanic eruptions can also sometimes initiate forest fires. Forest fires occurring out of human intervention, on the other hand, can be initiated due to a number of causes.
Although forest fires can occur naturally, the majority of forest fires are caused due to human intervention. Human negligence for example in not dousing forest campfires and even discarding cigarette butts without extinguishing them can eventually cause a forest fire. One needs to be extremely careful about igniting items in the forest, as the forest can have plenty of combustible material that can spread the forest fire depending upon the availability of components of the fire triangle, being fuel, heat and oxygen. The idea of the fire triangle is invoked by many fire-fighters around the world in combating forest fires.
Apart from this, other forms of human-induced accidents can also lead to forest fires. Apart from negligence due to smoking and campfires, accidents due to human intervention such as through fireworks, burning of waste and other accidents such as machinery accidents like explosion of gas balloons can initiate forest fires. Intentional acts of arson can also initiate forest fires which can be accidental or intentional. Crop burning can also sometimes act to initiate forest fires. Forest fires can lead to damage to ecosystems and biodiversity, degradation of forests, soil degradation and cause air pollution apart from various losses to human lifestyles and livelihoods.
Preventing Forest Fires
The WWF (2017) makes some recommendations for preventing forest fires and comments that forest fires are a high priority issue in terms of damage to forests. Each forest fire needs to be investigated in terms of its antecedent causes and strategies need to be developed in mitigating forest fire hazards that can be adapted to regions and are cause-specific and efficient. Efforts must also be made to raise public awareness of the dangers of forest fires and the appropriate behaviour that can prevent forest fires from occurring. The WWF mandates certain guidelines in preventing forest fires:
- Monocultures or excessive growth of fire-prone plants such as pine and eucalyptus should be avoided.
- Forest fire risk assessments must be integrated into legal systems.
- Forest fire risk assessments must also be integrated in policies for spatial planning, such that new settlements are prohibited in high-risk zones, developmental infrastructure should be adapted to reduce risk, developmental activities in pristine forests must be subject to environmental impact assessment, for example.
- Responsibilities should be assigned and strengthened clearly such that in the event of a forest fire breaking out, clearly assigned responsibilities should be in place. A clear chain of command in co-ordination for combating forest fires should also be in place. These should also be supported by human resources and financial support for monitoring, detection and action in combating forest fires.