Winter is here. This means the season of wildfires is upon us.

Thimphu saw the season’s first on Monday at Sirithangna which could only be put out the following day. Fire incidents increase significantly under dry weather conditions. Yesterday, for example, a fire razed a lhakhang to the ground in Bumthang.

The causes of wildfires are many. We often just point to the weather, but what we must understand is that most wildfires occur due to human carelessness. 

According to a global study, improperly extinguished campfires, lit cigarette butts, arson and improperly burnt debris are responsible for about 85 percent of wildfires.

In less than a decade, there have been more than 1,400 forest fire incidents in Bhutan; about 99 percent of fires were anthropogenic (originating due to human activity) in nature and occurred during the winter.

In Bhutan, the problem is not just wildfires. Fires breaking out in rapidly growing settlements are even more serious. The way settlements are growing in the peripheries of our towns is worrying. And we seem to conveniently blame fire incidents on short circuits and forget about them.

If short circuits are the main cause of fires, it should not be intractable to nip the problem in the bud. Unprofessional wiring is becoming the greatest danger in the country today. We know where the buck must stop, but duplication of responsibilities is opening up gaps that are becoming wider by the day.

Unfortunately, we often blame the firefighters as not doing enough, but choose to remain blind to our own carelessness. 

The Forest and Nature Conservation Act 1995 prohibits any fire in government forests, irrespective of forest type and vegetation sensitive to fire. The National Forest Policy of Bhutan 2011 prohibits fire in fire-sensitive ecosystems but allows the use of fire as a management tool in fire-adapted ecosystems. These measures are not enough, because they are pockmarked with gaps.

In 2017, under the Royal Command, the first interagency SOP was formulated and implemented for Thimphu. Under this arrangement, an Interagency Forest Fire Coordinating Group was formed for Thimphu, consisting of members from the authorities concerned. Every dzongkhag, town, and village must have groups at the ready, especially in the winter when the threat is high.

What is perhaps more important is embedding protective mechanisms wherever possible, especially in places where the threat of fire is the biggest. The fire of concern must burn in every Bhutanese heart.