Mongar is the most fire prone dzongkhag in the country

Fire: Despite years of awareness campaigning and loss of properties, man-made causes still damage tens of thousands acres of forest every winter.

Approximately 20,000 acres of land were razed by numerous forest fires that occurred this winter, the most recent one at Genekha gewog in Thimphu yesterday.

The incident occurred at around noon as a result of agriculture debris burning by a 75-year old woman. The extent of damage is unknown. However, no property or lives were lost. Some 140 people including personnel of the army, foresters and volunteers controlled the fire at around sunset.

Forest Protection and Surveillance Unit official Kinley Tshering said most of the forest fires are man-made and caused by the carelessness.

“We suspect that the recent forest fires at Sangaygang were caused by carelessness of a person through a discarded cigarette butt,” Kinley Tshering said. “It’s high time that people become responsible to help minimize forest fires.”

Given the frequent fire incidents in the capital, the agriculture minister recently has asked to form a team of foresters to respond to fires in Thimphu.

Every year, around this time of the year, forest fire occurs resulting in a huge loss to the country.  With thick and dry undergrowth, winter provides the perfect conditions for forest fires to occur on a huge scale.

Records maintained with the department show that forest fire incidences are common in conifer forest cover, which includes places like Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Wangduephodrang, Punakha, Mongar, Trashigang and Lhuentse.

Records show that in the past five winters, the country saw a total of 216 forest fires razing 96,044 acres.

The highest number of forest fires occurred in 2013-2014 with 66, which damaged 46,694 acres. The incidents, however, dropped to 33 last year, and with a resultant damage of 15,375 acres.

Last winter, except for Pemagatshel, Dagana and Tsirang, the rest of the country reported at least one forest fire incident.

Thimphu lost 499.41 acres of forests to its 11 forest fire incidents. Gasa, Sarpang, Zhemgang, Lhuentse, Chukha, Trongsa and Haa recorded a forest fire incident each.

Most of the fires began from burning agriculture debris followed by electric short circuits and children playing with fires.

If a fire escapes from burning of agricultural debris, campfire or bonfire set with permit, the person setting the fire will be fined Nu 10,000. The additional fine involves total manpower and vehicles involved. The fine is raised to Nu 50,000 if the person doesn’t have a permit.

To deter people from setting forest fires, the forest department endorsed tough rules in 2012.

If the cause is a faulty power line or short circuit, a fine of Nu 10,000 is imposed. A similar fine is imposed if fire escapes from a road and related activities.

Any person who maliciously sets fire to a forest is liable to a Nu 100,000 penalty. Additional fines include fair market value of the timber on volume basis and total manpower and vehicles involved.

Any person who attempts to set fire with the intention to destroy a forest is fined Nu 50,000.

The department conducts various programmes and awareness before and during the forest fire season, Kinley Tshering said.

The forest fire management programme is divided into three stages: pre-fire, on-fire and post-fire. Pre-fire includes conducting trainings, meetings and planning on how to create awareness to the people through different mediums. Volunteers are mobilized during fires.

“Our focus is on rehabilitation and plantation of the damaged area after the fire,” Kinley Tshering said.

The duration and fire occurrence depends on geographical locations and climatic conditions such as length of dry season, rainfall pattern and fuel-load on the forest floor.

“In general, it is observed that fire season starts from November and lasts till May of the following year. In the eastern part of the country, the peak season is between February to March and from January to May in the west since there is less rainfall,” Kinley Tshering said.

Forest fire management strategy states several strategies to reduce forest fires in the country.

The strategies involve focusing mainly on preventive aspect of forest fire management through environment education, awareness, and community involvement. Capacity building of forestry staff, fire volunteers, communities, De-Suups and Armed forces through trainings and visits need to be given high priority.

Operational guidelines, for management of forest fire, should also be developed that would clearly outline operational responsibilities of all stakeholders, organizational structures, standard operating procedures and actions with regard to forest fires.

A Department of Energy study in 2011 titled “Climate change impacts on the flow regimes of rivers in Bhutan” stated that water in Bhutan’s rivers came from melting of snow and glaciers, storages in lakes and wetlands most essentially from rainwater that has been stored underground in watersheds.

“Eighty percent of the water that generate electricity comes from watersheds,” it stated.

The officiating director of forestry Lobzang Dorji said frequent forest fires could also be detrimental to the hydropower plants.

“Repeated fire incidences in an area could wipe out the undergrowth leading to erosion of the topsoil in to the river,” he said.

Over time the sediments could hamper the performance of the hydropower plants as increasing deposits at the dam would flow in to the turbines. If this happens then it could need the plant to shut down to clear the siltation.

The country’s more than 600 community forest management groups has helped in reducing forest fires, Kinley Tshering said.

Thinley Zangmo and  Tshering Palden