Autumn Agony: Seasonal Forest Fires Suffocating Kashmir

One of the major sparks behind forest fire is campfire. KO Photo by Mushtaq Lone.

 ‘Autumn in Kashmir might be a celebrated season for all and sundry, but for us it a tormenting time.’

By Mohammad Tawheed   

EVERY fall, Qasim Bogda makes frenetic rounds of his hometown Khrew’s Baijnari forest range. Behind his regular outing is the dry season sparking forest fires and suffocating his tribe with smoke.

“It’s a yearly phenomenon,” says Qasim, as he shows me the susceptible spots. “These fires have been erupting here since 1980s and making all of us gasping for breath.”

At the borderline of Srinagar and Pulwama districts, these seasonal fires are escalating the breathing situation already triggered by the cement dusting in Khrew villagers.

But despite dust and despondency, these villagers, like Javaid Lone of village Bathen, gear up for the yearly fire-fighting.

“Autumn in Kashmir might be a celebrated season for all and sundry, but for us it’s a tormenting time,” Javaid says. “We remain on edge and watchful.”

A view of forest in Khrew. KO Photo by Mohammad Tawheed.

Next to Javaid’s village, Manzoor Bajad of Bardalaw village is also on his toes since April this year when forest flames made him a reluctant firefighter. The traces of springtime forest fire are still glaring in the village.

“The season of fall fuels these forest fires and ends up creating this suffocating situation here,” Manzoor says. “It’s a perpetual struggle for us.”

But while many are ready to fight these flames, others are resorting to safety measures.

Forest fire keeps villages on edge every autumn. KO Photo by Mohammad Tawheed.

Fearing the forest fire, Zubair Sayal lately abandoned his single-storey house built on a slope near the Baijnari village. He has come downhill to live with his brother-in-law.

“When the fire burns for a longer period of time,” Zubair says, “we experience acute breathlessness due smoke reaching our homes.”

To understand this seasonal suffocating situation and the state response, Kashmir Observer visited the Department of Wildlife Protection, Range Office Khrew at Shar-i-Shali.

The Wildlife Block of Khrew has six beats—Ladhoo, Wahab Sahab, Khudalaw, Bardalaw, Nagandar and Bathen-Baijnari.

Among them, Bathen-Baijnari beat lies in close vicinity of Dachigam National Park. These beats, notably, consist of resinous Pine trees or Kayur/Yaari kul. As per experts, these trees are prone to fire.

The fuel for fire. KO Photo by Mohammad Tawheed.

Inside his office, Range Officer Khursheed Mir informs that the four beats in Khrew—Wahab Sahab, Khudalaw, Bardalaw and Bathen—are susceptible to fire as people usually trek through them to reach different locations.

Wahab Sahab and Khudalaw beats provide a path to Pastuna, Tral, while Bardalaw and Bathen beats are ways to Satura, Tral and Khunmoh respectively.

“People often leave unextinguished campfires and discarded cigarettes behind their trails on these routes which in dry and windy weather conditions almost every time lead to forest fires,” Khursheed told Kashmir Observer.

“Also, people feeding their livestock on the floor of these forests practice bush-burning which is similar to stubble-burning. Unattended bush burning also causes forest fires.”

A human trail in jungle often leave behind combustible substances. KO Photo by Mohammad Tawheed.

Mushtaq Lone, a noted environmental activist working to protect Kashmir forests, says people put the dry grass and bushes in the forests on fire, believing that it helps in the growth of Kanguch or morel mushrooms and new grass.

“This ends up damaging the forest,” Mushtaq said. “Such practices should be checked to prevent these seasonal forest fires.”

Apart from these traditional beliefs, people living nearby forests deliberately scratch the trunks of huge Kayur trees for some timber.

“But the resin coming out of these scratches easily catches fire,” the eco-activist warned.

“Once the trunks of these trees are put on fire, they fall on the forest floor. This whole process is completed before winter and usually, it becomes the reason for a widespread fire in the forests.”

The charred remains of campfire. KO Photo by Mushtaq Lone.

While these manmade factors are known to spark the fire, Range Officer Khursheed said the natural factors like dry lightning or stone sparks are a rare phenomenon.

But when enquired about the measures taken by the wildlife department to prevent the forest fire, the range officer replied, “We’ve established a control room at Shar-i-Shali, Khrew for the purpose of rescue operations. It works 24×7, throughout the week. Our men despite the hilly terrain give their hundred per cent to put off the fire in minimum possible time. Last year, only a Joint Control Room at Forest Department, Range Office Pampore was also established for the purpose of mitigating forest fires in the area.”

The searing source of forest fire. KO Photo by Mushtaq Lone.

The wildlife department in recent years have also resorted to forest fencing, which minimizes encroachment and controls movement of people through forests.

“We also hold time to time awareness camps sensitizing general public and especially those living close to the forests about the issue of forest fires and their role in overall protection of the forests,” the range officer said.

“One such camp was held at Wahab Sahab this September. We also issue necessary advisories and warnings to people through notices and other media for not taking up construction of houses close to the forest and not indulge in illegal activities like bush-burning. It has already been brought into the notice of people that such activities would lead to registration of FIRs against them.”

The serenity of Khrew forests often turns smoky in fall. KO Photo by Mohammad Tawheed.

When this reporter asked one of the beat guards present at the Wildlife Range Office, Khrew about the challenges they face during the process of forest fire-fighting and the measures which could be taken to deal with these challenges, he replied, “We always give our best but since most of the forests in our area are mountainous, there are some areas where improvements could be made like we can use lightweight fire-fighting equipment which would make the overall process speedy and more effective.”

Experts say these guards can also make use of self-contained breathing apparatus which would make fire-fighting in the mountainous forests safer because sometimes they’ve to fight fire in these forests for hours and days continuously in a smoke-filled environment.

“In April 2022,” the beat guard said, “our firefighting team was on the job for eight days straight. Availability of a four-wheel-drive (4×4) vehicle would also help us reach the spot of fire immediately thus preventing fires from spreading to vast areas.”

But Qasim of Khrew’s Baijnari area is quite apprehensive about the state response despite the wildlife department upbeat about its defence mechanism.

“The roads that lead to the forests are underdeveloped and as a result rescue teams often find it hard to reach the fire spots on time,” he says. “The manpower guarding forests in Kashmir is insufficient, which eventually force us to play fire-fighters to save our own homes and habitats.”

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