After three forest watchers were killed while fighting a forest fire at Kottambathur in Thrissur district of Kerala, Manorama Online published a web series on forest fires.
Even though the Central Government had prepared a national programme in 2018 to prevent forest fires, several states, including Kerala, are hardly prepared to check such disasters.
Member of Parliament (MP) from Kerala Adoor Prakash moved a submission in the Lok citing a the issue.
Prakash, quoting the web series, said that several forest fires were reported around the country this year. In Kerala alone, there were 99 incidents.
Forests extending to an area of 93,000 hectares were burnt around the country last year. As much as 21 per cent of the forests in India are highly prone to fires.
In his submission, the MP said the Centre should convene a meeting of forest ministers of all states to discuss the issue and announce an economic package for states affected by forest fires.
The web series highlighted the failure of the Kerala government to prevent forest fires which led to the tragic death of the guards. Infographics, graphs, charts, maps, videos and podcasts showed how disastrous a forest fire could be.
Topics discussed included Kerala’s forest fires and the more destructive bush fire incidents reported from Australia. Facts regarding Kerala’s forest cover, areas prone to fires, the situation in other states, forest fire warnings, forest fire hotspots and locating fires in wooded areas from satellite were also explained.
The first part of the web series focused on the three forest watchers killed while fighting a fire in Kerala. The fire was reported from Illikundu forest under Poongode forest station bordering the Desamangalam, Cheruthuruthy, Mulloorkara and Varavoor panchayats. Local people saw fires on top of a hill near Kottamabathur, Kumarampanal and Pallam regions.
A team from the Forest Department, including temporary staff, was assigned to fight the fire three days later. They divided into several groups and ventured into the forest. The fatal fire took place on February 16 in an acacia estate belonging to Hindustan Newsprint Limited (HNL) 17 km from Cheruthuruthy. The victims were Divakaran (43), a Forest tribal watcher from Peringalkuthu Vazhchal colony; temporary employee Velayudhan (54) of Edavanna, Kodumbu in Wadakkanchery and Vattaprambil Sankaran (48), another temporary employee and Velayudhan’s neighbour.
While Divakaran and Velayudhan died on the spot, Sankaran succumbed to severe burns in hospital. The group of forest watchers were trying to control the fire with green leaves when the fire suddenly spread around them in strong winds. All three watchers were engulfed in the flames and burnt to death.
The Forest Department of Kerala has to be blamed for the deaths as the watchers were ill-equipped to control the fires. Even as modern technology is being employed in every sector, Kerala depends on primitive methods to check forest fires putting the lives of fire-fighters at risk.
Velayudhan and Sankaran were friends and neighbours. They also went to work together. Followers of different political parties, the two took care not to let that affect their friendship. Sankaran earlier ran a shop near his house before he became temporary watcher four years ago. Velayudhan, who was a daily wager, later joined Sankaran. Hailing from Kuriyarkutty in Parambikulam, Divakaran settled down at Vazhachal after his wedding. While the last rites of Velayudhan and Sankaran were held on the banks of the river at Puthussery in Cheruthuruthy, Divakaran’s funeral took place at Parambikulam.
Incidentally, a son was born to Divakaran after a nine-year-wait one year ago. He regularly reached his house every fortnight with sweets for his wife Indira and son Dhyan.
A K Kannan, Velayudhan’s brother and a former president of Erumapetty grama panchayat, said that Illukundu forest was not usually prone to fires. “The Forest Department lacks an effective mechanism to check forest fires. Moreover, vehicles like a fire engine cannot enter the forest,” he said.
Velayudhan and others like him are given temporary employment for five-six months during summer by the Forest Protection Committee. The financial status of all the three mishap victims was very low. They were paid very little for the risky job. Kannan said the Forest Minister and top Forest Department officials had offered condolences to the families of the victims and promised support.
Velayudhan is survived by his wife Karthiyayani and three children, two of whom are married. The engagement of the third child was fixed when Velayudhan lost his life in the fire. His sons work as drivers to make both ends meet.
Nidheesh, a friend of Velayudhan’s son Subeesh, said: “Velayudhan and others had spent two-three days at another place and reached home. The next day was a Sunday but Forest Department officials summoned them again to fight this fatal fire. We never imagined that they wouldn’t return.”
Forest Department staff had died in fires earlier too but the authorities have learnt no lesson. Two years ago, guard Muniyappa, belonging to Bijapur, had died in a forest fire near Pulpally wildlife sanctuary in Wayanad. Two watchers were seriously injured and the official vehicle of Forest Conservator was gutted in the incident.
A few years ago, watcher Gangadharan was found dead with burns in Kulathupuzha forest. He was part of a team that entered the forest to fight a fire.
Meanwhile, watcher of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department Nammalvar was charred to death in a fire at Nedumkandam. In one of the worst tragedies, eight persons, including five women, who were part of a 37-member team of trekkers were charred to death in a fire at Kurangini forest on the Kerala- Tamil Nadu forest last year.
During summer, anxiety grips forest watchers. When a fire is reported in the forest, they have to arrive for work irrespective of the time. The paths leading to fires are tough to negotiate and vehicles cannot be used. The attire and gear of the fire-fighters are pathetic. They wear a ‘lungi’ and rubber chappals, while carrying a machete and a torch.
The 1,000-odd acres of acacia forest under HNL is difficult to access. Till five years ago, precautions were taken here against fires. The trees were earlier felled to make paper pulp but this ceased some years ago, along with clearing the grass and undergrowth in summer. Now grasses and shrubs cover the area which dries up in summer, making it prone to fires.
A large amount of forest produce is lost in fires and now human lives too have perished. Still, the Forest Department is not prepared to declare the fires as a disaster, said N Badusha, president of Wayanad Environmental Protection Committee and an activist of Fire Free Forest, a collective of around 30 environmental organisations in Kerala.
“We first started a campaign against forest fires in 1984 and took out a procession in Wayanad. Awareness programmes for schoolkids are still held. However, the Forest Department has adopted a lackadaisical attitude,” he said.
According to Badusha, as 44 rivers in Kerala originate from the forests in the Western Ghats, we have a duty to protect the greenery. “The natural calamities witnessed by Kerala were caused by forest fires,” he said.
Badusha said the British prepared ‘fire lines’ to check forest fires. “Trees, grass and shrubs were cleared at a breadth of 5.2 m in areas susceptible to forest fires. However, a section of Forest officials say fire line is an unscientific method and it was not adopted properly this year,” he said.
Moreover, the authorities have not considered plans such as helicopters to spray water or utilizing drones to locate fires. The watchers are not provided even oxygen masks, said Badusha.
“Shocking apathy of the authorities led to the three deaths. The Forest Minister and top officials should be booked for murder,” he demanded.
The Forest Survey of India (FSI) under the Central Forest Department, on January 16, 2019, introduced a modern mechanism named ‘Fast’ to issue an accurate warning on forest fires. NASA, ISRO and FSI are involved in the project. The National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSI) utilizes two sensor platforms named ‘Modis’ and ‘SNPP-VIIRS’ based on satellite imagery for the purpose. While Modis is on the satellites Terra and Aqua launched by NASA in 1999 and 2002, the other platform is on SNPP satellite station. Modis can point out forest fires in a resolution of 1 km X 1 km, VIIRS has a resolution of 375 m X 375 m.
FSI processes information regarding the ‘hotspots’ received from the satellites and passes it on the nodal officers in states and other registered users in the network. The FSI website also immediately shows the exact location where a fire has occurred. The Forest Department of the respective state would then act to control the fire. Feedback regarding the action taken is also sent to FSI.
Incidentally, FSI had issued a warning regarding the fire at Illikundu in Kottambathur also. The information regarding the exact location reached the Wadakkanchery range of Thrissur division in Kerala’s central forest division at 1pm on February 16 but the three forest guards were killed around 4:30pm. Shocking apathy on the part of the authorities lead to the deaths.
While top Forest officials blame lack of funds for the pathetic working condition and poor pay of the forest watchers, facts prove otherwise. In Thrissur district, where the watchers died owing to lack of safety equipment, a modern Forest Department guest house is being built at Peechi and an indoor stadium is coming up adjacent to the department’s office in Paravattani. Funds are not a problem also to buy air-conditioned jeeps for range forest officers and 21 new Innova vehicles for the department.
Moreover, a big scam is involved in preparing the fire line, alleged environmental activists.
Forest fires rage from January to April, especially when there is wind. There are several types of forest fires – ‘surface fire’, ‘mid-level fire’, ‘crown fire’ and the most intense ‘ground fire’. In case ground fire occurs, it may take centuries for the area to return to the earlier condition, said forest researchers.
All the fires reported in Kerala are manmade, admit Forest Department officials. Big fires are sparked by people who venture into the forest and carelessly throw lighted cigarette of ‘beedi’ stubs, make campfires or cook food in the forest. All this can be prevented if some care is taken. In foreign countries, fires are sparked by intense sunlight, lightning or friction between trees. In Kerala, some miscreants even start fires to settle a score with Forest officials. Others spark fires to destroy proof of stealing wood from forest, said Department officials.
The most devastating fires in recent times were witnessed in Amazon rainforests and Australia. Forest bush fires are common during December – January every year in Australian forests but this time it started in July 2019, became widespread by September and had not died down even in February 2020. The damage has been huge. Around 125 crore animals and other creatures perished in the inferno. Injured creatures number still more. Human toll was 33, including four fire fighters. Over 14 million acres of land has become unusable. The area affected by fire was much more in Australia than in Amazon.
As many as 10 million tonnes of Carbon dioxide was released into atmosphere during the fire. Concerns have been raised over the impact of the fire on global warming, air pollution and impact on weather.
Tackling forest fires is no longer a priority for Kerala’s Forest Department. Earlier, effective preventive programmes against fires were carried out, said environmental activists. Moreover, as the Forest officials travel in vehicles that are suitable only for the highways, they never venture into the forest. Any issue inside the forest is handled by lower staff like watchers. This calls for ensuring the safety of the forest guards. It is also alleged that the death of three watchers did not spark a major controversy as they belong to the backward section and hail from ordinary backgrounds.
The most effective method to prevent forest fires is prevention, said Muralee Thummarukudy, head of the UN’s disaster management section. “The frequency of natural disasters is increasing these days. The US and Australia have efficient mechanisms to check forest fires. France too is well-equipped to help all countries in the Mediterranean region to prevent and control forest fires. How well are we prepared?” he asks.
Meanwhile, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Chelakkara U R Pradeep blamed HNL for the death of the watchers. It was the company’s task to prepare a fire line, he said. No such work was carried out in the area, Pradeep added.
However, the families of the deceased watchers would be cared for, he said. An amount of Rs 7.5 lakh each was handed over to the families of the victims by Forest Minister K Raju. The dependents of temporary watchers Velayudhan and Sankaran would be given jobs as drivers at Poongode forest station, said Pradeep. Procedures to appoint a family member of Divakaran, who was a permanent employee, would be speeded up. The government is also planning to provide insurance cover to forest watchers, said the MLA.