…regeneration takes five years depending on various conditions

Choki Wangmo

In less than a decade, Bhutan recorded a total of 1,403 forest fire incidents. About 99 percent of fires were anthropogenic in nature and occurred in winter. These man-made disasters are further intensified by extreme climatic events.

The highest numbers of fire incidents were recorded in Thimphu—104 incidents and Wangduephodrang recorded the highest areas burnt—40,923 acres.

The officials from forest department said the causes of the fires were either accidental or intentional. The major causes were burning of agriculture debris, carless smokers, campers and picnickers, roadside bitumen burning, spark due to electrical short circuit from power transmission lines in forests, among others.

A total of 70.77 percent of land area is under forest cover, according to Land-use and Land Cover Assessment 2016. Most were primary forests originating from natural regeneration.

Chief of Forest Protection and Enforcement Division with Forest Department Kinley Tshering said that 25 percent of Bhutanese forests were coniferous forests, hence, prone to fire.

Regeneration of trees on fire burnt area depends on the species. Conifer species takes about five years. The regeneration success also depends on the intensity of fire, local geology and prevailing weather conditions, Kinley Tshering said. It takes 90-120 years for conifer species to mature.

In the last two years, mega fires were reported from across the world. Australia lost millions of hectares of forest areas in the recent bushfire. Although the fires were started by humans, the World Meteorological Organisation stated that other factors like temperatures above 40°C, prolonged lack of rain and gusty winds elevated the situation.

Last year, Bhutan experienced delayed monsoon and recorded the highest temperature in decades. Country’s geographical landscapes make it more challenging to contain fire.

Kinley Tshering said that Bhutan should learn from fire incident in other countries such as USA, Greece and Australia. These countries, he said had complete fire ban policies since the late 18th century, resulting in accumulation of forest fuel load. “When fires burn in such areas, they are often mega and catastrophic in nature, completely destroying huge tracts of forests.”

Annual Forestry Facts and Figures for the year 2018 reported that Bhutan’s forest store 709.27 million tonnes of carbon in the form of biomass, dead organic matter, debris and soil organic matter.

Kinley Tshering said that in the past there was less fuel buildup as people used forest for fodder, leaf mould and as pastures. With ban on these practices, there is huge fuel buildup, increasing the risk of large scale fires.

With urban settlement encroaching into the forest land, forest-urban fire interface is narrowing, increasing the risk of fire disasters.

Policy interventions 

The Forest and Nature Conservation Act 1995 prohibits any fire in government forests, irrespective of forest type and vegetation sensitivite to fire. The National Forest Policy of Bhutan 2011 prohibits fire in fire-sensitive ecosystems while allowing use of fire as a management toll in fire-adapted ecosystems.

The National Forest Fire Management Strategy 2013 strategises various approaches to both scientific management of fire as well as a coercive scheme to engage communities and public in fire prevention, suppression and management through group formation and volunteerism.

In 2017, under Royal Command, the first interagency SOP was formulated and implemented for Thimphu. Under this arrangement, Interagency Forest Fire Coordinating Group (IFFCG) was formed for Thimphu consisting of members from authorities concerned. In the last two years, IFFCG was implemented in forest fire prone districts of Paro, Wangdue, Bumthang, Mongar and Trashigang.

If the disaster is intense, despite IFFCG members, Desuung, local public and other volunteers are deployed. In difficult terrain conditions, service of the Bhutan Helicopter Service is availed.

“As per the latest SOP, the concerned Dzongkhag administration and the Department of Disaster Management provide logistics and food during mega fire events,” Kinley Tshering said.

According to the Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulations 2017, defaulters are fined depending on the violation of forest fire rules.