Man-made forest fires ravaged thousands of acres of forest in Trashigang

Neten Dorji

Trashigang—Despite the Trashigang Divisional Forest Office and religious bodies conducting awareness campaigns for years, forest fires started by humans still damage thousands of acres of forest every winter.

In the last eight years, about 20,874.52 acres of forest land were affected by numerous forest fires in Trashigang. This winter alone over 4,239 acres of forest cover were lost to forest fire. It is still the fire season.

Forest fires in the dzongkhag occur mostly between December and April as a result of burning agricultural waste, carelessness of picnickers, cattle herders and roadside workers or from electrical short circuits.

Trashigang is one of the most forest fire-prone areas in the country. Gewogs like Bartsam, Yangnyer, Bidung, Chaskhar in Mongar (which shares border with Trashigang), Udzorong, and Kanglung form a ring that lies on the perfect leeward side and remains dry most of the time.

Given the frequency of forest fires in the dzongkhag, residents say that it has become more of a sight to behold for people in the region than an issue of concern.

“Forest fires happen almost every day between February and April. There is nothing much we can do,” a resident who didn’t want to be named said. “There is no one to take the blame and there are never reports of a person being caught for causing fire.”

Forest officials suspect most of the unknown fires were started intentionally by people. A senior forest official said since Chir pine forests have lemongrass as undergrowth, people intentionally set fire to the grasses to thrive, as it is believed to increase oil production next season.

He said that forest fires also occur when settlements close to the forests start  fires to ward off wild animals like wild boars and for wild asparagus collection. “Apart from these three, we don’t see any other reasons why people start  forest fires.”

With the growing number of forest fire incidents in recent years, the department of forest and park services and religious body has conducted a series of awareness campaigns including door-to-door advocacy in the region.

“We have done everything possible,” said another forest official. “But I have not seen any permanent solution so far.”

Records maintained with the Trashigang Forest Division show that forest fire incidents are common in coniferous forest covers like in  Yangner, Udzorong, Bartsham, Samkhar,Kanglung, Bidung in Trashigang, and Chaskhar, Yadi, Dramitse, Thangrong, and Narang in Mongar.

In the past five winters, Trashigang saw a total of 27 forest fires, which destroyed 11,994.55 acres. Six forest fires occurred in 2019, followed by seven in 2021, which damaged 3,871.78 acres. Additionally, four fires occurred in 2022, damaging 1,943 acres. The incidents, however, increased to nine last year, resulting in damage to 3,871.78 acres.

According to forest officials, people generate about Nu 3.5 million annually through the sale of non-forest products like lemongrass oil and wild asparagus.  “Once we tried restricting the sale of wild asparagus in markets to prevent forest fires, but it did not work,” said the senior forest official.


Long term impacts

Most people are unaware of the long-term impacts of forest fires on the environment, rivers and the ecosystem. While forest fires provide some short-term benefits for seed germination and pasture development, the negative effects are long lasting.

“Most plants and shrubs will grow back relatively quick, but forest ecosystems will take several years to recover,” the senior forest official explained. “Forest fires also damage the soil stability, leading to soil erosion and increasing surface run off and silt in rivers.”

Experts say that a heavier silt load in rivers damages turbine blades and affects the power production of hydropower projects, particularly if there are downstream hydro plants.

They said that forest fires do not cause much damage when they occur annually in the same area. “But when the forest accumulates fuel, wildfires can wreak havoc,” says a forest official adding that scientifically, forest fires in chir pine areas are beneficial for the regeneration of chir pine trees.


Policy interventions

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

The National Forest Fire Management Strategy 2013 strategies 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 consisting of members from authorities concerned. The IFFCG    was also implemented in forest fire prone districts of Paro, Wangdue, Bumthang, Mongar and Trashigang.