In the end, nature always triumphs.
After much media buzz and public adoration in its first few days of firefighting in front of a large audience, the government’s helicopter remained on the ground as the Chuzom fire burned thousands of acres of forest.
The fire’s scale was too large and its front too far from water sources for the helicopter to be able to join the fight and make a difference with its 1,000 litre water bucket.
We’re back to fighting a large fire, fed by strong winds and protected by inaccessible terrain, on the ground and in the brush.
Some fires we will not be able to control despite technological improvements, such as the addition of a helicopter.
While it is recognized abroad that some forest fires should be allowed to burn as part of the ecological cycle, the problem is when forest fires threaten settlements and human lives.
While villages in the fire’s path have been spared, there are now concerns about a lhakhang in Paro. We can only hope nothing happens to the lhakhang or the hundreds of firefighters combatting this unpredictable blaze that was started by a short circuit on a transmission tower.
We don’t have the large aircraft to drop thousands of litres of flame retardant in the fire’s path.
Looking back at the other fires following losar, there is a worrying common denominator. Most of them have been started by human carelessness and most of them have been near human settlements. It is fortunate that no lives or infrastructure were lost to these fires.
The frequency of the fires also shows us that people can still be careless with fire despite all the awareness and sensitization programmes that has cost so much, potentially putting hundreds, perhaps thousands of others at risk, especially firefighters.
It is high time that a zero-tolerance approach is implemented when it comes those factors that have been causing forest fires.
Open burning of garbage or agriculture land is a common practice today.
Open burning of garbage must not be allowed. Not only is it a risk but it is a practice that is outdated.
Burning of agriculture land must be allowed only if strict preconditions are met such as no winds and having enough people to ensure the fire does not spread beyond the designated area.
Perhaps, attending a training session on the dos and don’ts of setting fires and requiring a permit could also be requirements.
Discarded cigarettes butts and playing with matches were also causes of some of the recent fires.
As the winter and dry season approaches, concerned agencies consider getting more creative about their awareness programmes.
For instance, the Sangaygang area has suffered a few fires already this year, all it is suspected, because of discarded cigarette butts. Perhaps, the youth police or other volunteers could regularly patrol the area and talk to their fellow youth who like the seclusion of the area to among other activities, smoke. Not to fine them for smoking but to show them how to discard their cigarettes and put off their bon fires.
When people are aware of the risks but continue to be careless then the penalties must be severe.
Today, we still see people flicking their cigarette butts out of their vehicles. This cannot be tolerated. A single cigarette butt can put hundreds of firefighters at risk and cost taxpayers millions.
While penalties can run into millions of ngultrums depending on the amount of forest destroyed, some would never be able to afford the fines and could be spared on such grounds.
However, if the penalties are more socially oriented like community service, for instance, contributing labour for the thromde or government when it is required, on a time length depending on the amount of tax payer money spent on firefighting, and amount of forest destroyed, perhaps, the effect may be more felt by the offender.
Much has been done to make the public aware, but there is a need to change the way we prevent forest fires. The approach has to be reexamined given these recent incidents. Some, like the Chuzom one, are caused by acts beyond our control and may burn uncontrolled for days despite our advances in technology, but there are other fires, that can be prevented from even being set in the first place.
Let us not put others at risk by allowing carelessness.