Bandipur Blaze: Authorities Say Local Sabotage, Activists Cry Foul

Bandipur Blaze: Authorities Say Local Sabotage, Activists Cry Foul

India

A forest fire has been raging for the past three days across large swathes of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, approximately 220 kilometres from Bengaluru. Thousands of acres of forest land has already been lost to the flames with the state fire department, along with hundreds of volunteers trying every trick in the book to mitigate the situation.

While the official figure of forest land burnt so far has been pegged at approximately 2,500 acres, activists and conservationists working on the ground claim it is closer to 4,500 hectares (over 11,000 acres). Officials have not yet been able to account for the wildlife affected.

At over 87,000 hectares, the Bandipur Tiger Reserve is a national park home to one of the ecologically sensitive regions in south India and hosts a number of protected species including elephants and tigers.

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“It is tough during the day because of wind speeds. It will be a few days before we will be able to take control. It is not that active now, we are primarily controlling it at night,” C Jayaram, Principal Chief Conservator of forests told The Quint on Monday. Two IAF helicopters were also pressed into service.

Volunteers and forest officers attempt to douse the flames at Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
Volunteers and forest officers attempt to douse the flames at Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
(Photo Courtesy: Joseph Hoover)

Also Read : Bandipur Forest Fire Rages On, Activist Says Warning Signs Ignored

Activists are calling it the worst forest fire in the history of the state. The last major fire had taken place incidentally in Bandipur in February 2017. Forest officials said that it had taken ten days to completely extinguish the flames last time and a forest guard had lost his life.

Fire raging in Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
Fire raging in Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
(Photo Courtesy: Joseph Hoover)

Dept Suspects Disgruntled Miscreants

On Friday, the Karnataka Forest Department said that a number of fires had been reported from within Bandipur in the week leading up to the fire escalating, over the weekend.

“Ground Fire happened in Mangala side of Kundukure Range of Bandipur tiger reserve a week back. It was contained by our staff and local people. Fire happened in Gopala Swamy betta three days back. Apparently, it was put by a fellow disgruntled with the department which booked cases against his associate for forest offence. Person is identified but absconding. Police are in the lookout for the person. Truth will be out when he is apprehended.”
Forest Department note on Facebook

“The cause is man-made. Someone has set a dung fire. The culprit has been identified and police will nab him soon,” said Jayaram.

Forest department officials said that the fire spread rapidly due to the presence of tall weeds like “lantana, other weeds, grass, dead fallen and dead standing trees”.

A dung fire discovered by volunteers fire-fighting in Bandipur this week. Dung fires are lit by miscreants who set fire to piles of elephant dung.
A dung fire discovered by volunteers fire-fighting in Bandipur this week. Dung fires are lit by miscreants who set fire to piles of elephant dung.
(Photo Courtesy: Joseph Hoover)
According to senior officials, after the 2017 fire in Bandipur, there had been internal talks about moving court to remove the hardwood collected on the forest floor to mitigate any potential fire. However, the move was never implemented leading to the accumulation of dead and hard wood across the Reserve.

Also Read : Nature or Locals: Who is to Blame for Uttarakhand Forest Fires?

Dept Unprepared for ‘Fire Season’: Activists

Brijesh Dixit, additional principal chief conservator of forests (FRM) and nodal officer for fire in Karnataka said that on an average, there were around 400-600 forest fires every year.

According to data provided by the state fire department, the number of forest fires has increased from 589 fires in 2015 to 985 incidents last year. The year 2016 saw 913 cases and 925 forest fires were reported in 2017.

Setting of dung fires, high temperatures, arid conditions, heavy winds and other exacerbating factors make Bandipur especially prone to forest fires in the month of February.

However, activists and conservationists believe that the forest department had failed to adequately prepare for ‘fire season’. They are supposed to conduct meetings with locals, wildlife wardens and other stakeholders to discuss the situation and contingency measures, asking them to be more careful. The meeting is supposed to happen in December-January, but it did not happen this year, says conservationist Joseph Hoover.

Hoover, has been at Bandipur for the last few days, and on the front-lines of fighting the blaze. He said there were hundreds of volunteers present, but they were almost helpless in front of the scale of the fire.

Night time visuals of the fire at Bandiur Tiger Reserve
Night time visuals of the fire at Bandiur Tiger Reserve
(Photo Courtesy: Joseph Hoover)
“All this has happened because the forest department (was) not receptive with the local communities. During fire season, they should have had a meeting with wildlife wardens, locals etc to discuss what needs to be done and prepare accordingly. There has been some trouble with an individual who has turned the locals against the department. Even during the fire-fighting efforts, we found several dung fires that had been recently lit.”
Hoover to The Quint

He had also been on the spot during fire incidents in Bandipur in 2017 and 2014.

“They have not hired fire watchers – daily wagers, who keep watch over the forest, they have not trimmed and burnt the bushes in the fire lands, which are areas next to the roads. They have identified some miscreants, there are more people involved. We have asked for an inquiry,” Hoover said.

Volunteers use flat brooms to fight the flames, they were not given any equipment.
Volunteers use flat brooms to fight the flames, they were not given any equipment.
(Photo Courtesy: Jospeph Hoover)

“It was very challenging, there were a lot of volunteers and others from Bengaluru, Mysuru, but they were not given much direction for what they should be doing. They had no fire-fighting equipment, took sticks and were beating, but there wasn’t much effect. They were desperate but couldn’t do much,” said Hoover.

“This fire could not be fought humanly, just have to wait. It has gone up to the Tamil Nadu border, it’s one of the biggest forest fires in the history of the state.”
Joseph Hoover

Deployment of IAF choppers was done on Monday after a preliminary recce of the affected areas and identification of water-filling points. Approximately, 30,000 litres of water have been used to douse the flames on the first day and effort will resume at sunrise on Tuesday, 26 February. The choppers are expected to greatly expedite the containment of the fire.

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