Forest Fires : Part 2

Forest Fires : Part 2

The Picture uploaded above was the Pamphlet being distributed by the Government to help manage the fire. Helpful, huh?

Anyway, my big firsthand lesson was that you fight fire with fire.

We had set the forest below the road on fire in an attempt to control the oncoming flames. In just minutes the entire forest downhill from the road was burnt or ablaze – and the fire had been cut-off at the road. It seemed to have stopped its forward movement.

Since this front seemed well manned (apologies to all feminists but “personned” just doesn’t work for me) and under control, I headed to Sushil’s house. A bunch of volunteers and visitors had all come together and were fighting the fire together. They had the advantage of access to a natural spring: water. I joined in the efforts and we were able to put out the fire all along a jungle path. Except a small section of the fire that had spread into a forest down from the path which was a sheer drop – too steep to go down and fight. Powerless, we saw it spreading slowly, steadily into the valley below. We threw a few mugs of water at it. If a fire could’ve laughed at us, it would’ve. Across on the other side of the same valley was another house. We could see that the fire would eventually find its way there. (It did later in the night, but was contained by Sushil & co). That was when I realized how difficult it actually was to put a fire out. You have to put it out in all directions. Even if you could not see the end of the fire, you had to find it, and then put both ends out. Otherwise it just circles back around the fire line and catches up.

Hungry and tired, I headed to Sonapani hoping to find some food. Vandita – my wife – had already left to be with the kids. At Sonapani a remarkably non-chalant Deepa was discussing handicrafts and showing her hand-painted T-shirts (which are pretty awesome) to some guests. Naïve, I didn’t realize she was – rightly – trying to keep the guests mind off the fires. I could see two fires in the distance, and now in the dark they looked particularly ominous. I knew her crew was out fighting one fire but wasn’t sure they knew of the other one, which was off to a side. I jumped on the parapet and started pointing to them and talking about them. Through gritted teeth Deepa told me to tone down my non-stop gibberish about fighting the fire (while she quietly called her team and told them to head to the second fire).

I finally got a bite to eat, and called Sushil to check how things were going. Predictably, he said the fire was back on. I was dog tired – it had been a long day. A non-smoker, I felt like I had smoked a thousand cigarettes in one evening. But I figured one last visit was okay so headed to Sushil’s. The fire we thought we had put out was back on and closer to the house. We had a pipe with running water and buckets, and one by one doused the two fronts on which we were fighting the fire. The shell-shocked volunteers were city folk who had come to holiday or to volunteer at Aarohi. Some looked decidedly at-risk as they teetered up scrubby, pathless slopes lugging buckets in the darkness in their delicate city shoes. They had come expecting to have a relaxed holiday or some easy travel, and instead were pitted against forest fires in the dark with torches, headlamps and buckets of water to lug.

No frying pans and, suddenly, fire.

Later one of them was to tell me how impressed they were that I turned up in the night and was carting buckets up and down. I had blushed right through my unfair & lovely cheeks.

_______

Afterthought : I don’t think my effort actually made much of a difference to any of the fires. As a first timer I was learning on the job and making mistakes as I went. The bravado in the above article is largely to make myself feel important. One of the benefits of writing first-hand is that it is always your version. Ha.

Afterthought2 : They just released a podcast about me talking about writing. It’s always fun to hear people who know very little talk with much authority about something – just like this blog. Check it out at https://soundcloud.com/firstbookpodcast/chetan-mahajan-advice-on-how .

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Uttarakhand Forest Fire Encounters – Part 1

Uttarakhand Forest Fire Encounters – Part 1

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.)