Odisha government constitutes a task force to deal with the raging forest fires in the State, especially in the Similipal biosphere

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Forest fire raging in the Similipal biosphere and tiger reserve in Odisha. Photo: BISWARANJAN ROUT

 

As hundreds of forest fires continue to devour large tracts in different parts of Odisha, the Naveen Patnaik government on March 8 constituted a State-level task force to deal with the situation.

Of the 1,279 active large fires tracked across the country by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) on March 8, Odisha was leading the table with 697 forest fires. In fact, forest fires have been reported from more than 20 of the 30 districts of Odisha, with the Similipal biosphere in Mayurbhanj district being the worst affected. Jharkhand was second, with 171 forest fires, followed by Madhya Pradesh recording 91 forest fires.

Social media was full of posts last week about the devasation caused by the Similipal fires. The scion of the erstwhile royal family of Mayurbhanj, Akshita Bhanj Deo, sought to bring the national media’s attention to the raging fires of Similipal. Many celebrities, including the child environmental activist Licypriya Kangujam, tweeted on the issue, demanding action.

The State government has sent four additional teams to douse the fire at different locations. Additional manpower has also been mobilised to deal with forest fires in Mayurbhanj and other districts.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik reviewed the situation on March 3 and asked officials to take measures to control the wildfire in Similipal. Stating that Similipal was an invaluable treasure not only for the country but for the entire world, he said that a standard operating procedure (SOP) had been issued to deal with the situation.

A sudden rise in temperature in different parts of Odisha from the last week of February is said to have worsened the forest-fire situation in the State. Though the SOP for fire control kicks in from February, the Forest Department was caught napping as they apparently believed that no fire will occur before March.

Conservationists say most fires in Similipal are caused by local hunters who set large patches of habitat on fire to scare the wildlife out of their refuge. Biswajit Mohanty, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, said: “The dry leaf litter of deciduous forests like Similipal act as a ready fuel for fires. One matchstick is enough to start a conflagration that can destroy thousands of acres of forests.”

Besides, with the onset of the Mahua flower season, people who collect the flowers often burn the leaf litter under a tree to clear the floor for easy collection of the flowers. Sometimes, these fires spread to an adjacent forest. However, full-fledged Mahua season is yet to start in Odisha.

The State Forest and Environment Department, which has taken a series of measures to douse the fire at various locations around Similipal and other regions, constituted the task force following criticism from wildlife activists and conservationists.

According to the State Forest Department, the nine-member task force, under the chairmanship of Sandeep Tripathi, Odisha’s former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), will review the ongoing forest fire incidence, their causes and suggest ways of immediate containment.

The task force will suggest measures for augmentation of the existing fire management protocols including geomatics-based fire alert system. The team of experts will also conduct post-assessment of forest fire-affected areas, loss to wildlife and biodiversity and suggest appropriate measures for augmentation.

The task force will also give suggestions for improved community participation in fire management and prevention and give suggestions for improvement of the SOP for fire prevention and management in the State.

However, activists allege that the task force does not have representation from any tribal rights, wildlife conservation or forest protection non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and wonder how it could address the problems without valuable ground-level inputs.

Forest fires are easily controlled if action is taken within the first couple of hours. Local communities can play a critical role in dousing such fires before they spread. The Forest Department is now struggling to engage them to control the situation.

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