Everyone has their own theory about the cause of the forest fires. These range from mismanagement and bad governance / timber and land mafia / the Congress / the BJP / both / global warming and so on.

I am not an expert. I have one year’s experience of living in the mountains, and one day’s fighting fires.  Here I am simply sharing my experiences of Friday, April 29th.

We were driving home from Almora  around 3 pm – our pet Fia had just gone through an operation. About 8 km short of our home we were told to stop as the forest around the road ahead was on fire. We could see it. The whole mountain side was ablaze, and we could feel the heat 20 metres away. We drove after 10 minutes through what looked like a Vietnam Napalm bombing zone – burning trees on the roadside, smouldering branches on the road. As we crossed Aarohi (a local NGO) we could see staff members hurrying up the hill. They said the fire was moving up and Satoli, (a local village) was at risk. Some close friends lived there.

We rushed home, left Fia and headed to Satoli. En route I kept wondering what exactly we would do once we reached the fire. The area is water deficient, and the nearest fire hydrant is a hundred miles away. At Satoli one could see smoke in 2 places in the distance. Our friends Deepa and Ashish run the Himalayan Village – a beautiful resort in Sonapani. Deepa seemed unperturbed, and said her staff had gone to deal with the fires. Clearly, she’d seen fires before. Ashish’s absence (he was travelling) didn’t seem to matter. Thank god. I can’t deal with panicky people.

We headed down to where the fires were, and a few villagers were standing around it, trying to put it out by beating it with green branches from trees. Didn’t seem to be working very well. I tried the same strategy, and realized two things:

  1. Fire is REALLY hot
  2. Fire is unpredictable. It will change direction in a nanosecond.

A few singed hair on my forearm reinforced the learning. Some villagers whose house was en-route were trying to control the fire with a bucket and some water. Bloody uneven match.

The crew from Himalayan Village had assessed the situation and moved further up the hill. They were using rakes and clearing a path of the dry leaves and pine needles in the way of the fire. Dr Puneet – a local resident – explained the only way to fight fire is to cut it off.

The only tools in evidence were Rakes and green branches. No water. No Chemicals. A thought drifted in sideways

“Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Raikwal.

Raikwal who?

Raikwal – the best firefighters in Kumaon. We have the most rakes. “

(Raikwal is a common last name in Kumaon. And yes, I need therapy. )

So the crew cleared a forest trail and set fire to the collected heaps of leaves and pine needles in the path of the oncoming fire. That way more leaves and branches close to the fire line would be burnt, and the oncoming fire would have even less to feed on. We seemed successful for a bit, but at one patch where the dry grass was particularly long, the fire – assisted by strong winds – just jumped across the path. Given the fire’s fury, our fire-fighting weapons of green branches were laughable, and our efforts proved futile.

The fire was running up the hill. The house of Dr. Sushil – another local resident – was just about 100 yards from the fire, but to the right. The wind wasn’t headed that way, but his house was pretty close. Sonapani (where Himalayan Village was) was much further, but the fire was literally running in that direction. The crew headed up the hill to create a second fire line. I considered the options, and finally decided to head up the hill as well. It was a tough call.

There was a forest road up the hill, and the Sonapani crew made a second fire line at the road. The road was a natural barrier to the fire, and was easy to clean of dry leaves. They laughed and joked as they went about it running up and down the hillside. Made it look rather easy.  I could see the crew make heaps of the pine needles again and light them with matches. It caught like tinder.  (…to be continued)

( You can see some videos on the Uncity facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1714595062158709/ but you’ll have to go to the beginning.)

 

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One thought on “Uttarakhand Forest Fire Encounters – Part 1

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