As Bandipur forest blaze finally dies down, activists question missing 'fire lines' and vacant posts

Amrutha G | Feb 28, 2019 | 6 min read

  • It’s all out in the open everything that went wrong in Karnataka’s Bandipur reserve, which lost 5% of its area to a major forest fire last month, called the worst in the state’s history. And going by all the preventive measures the newly-appointed field director for the reserve is already putting in place, it’s clear that the absence of a dedicated on-site officer, a position left vacant for nearly two months, to take charge and oversee the dousing operation, contributed to the chaos.

    Experts have cited the lack of fire lines — spaces in a forest devoid of vegetation or anything combustible to stop a blaze from spreading — as another crucial misstep on part of the forest department.

    Unofficial estimates have put the damaged area of the week-long fire that started on February 19 at almost 7,000 hectares.


    Damage control

    A senior IFS officer confirmed that Bandipur did not have a dedicated field director and the officer managing two postings was stationed all the way in Mysuru.

    The forest department took the decision to fill the vacancy only after nearly a week, when the blaze continued to rage — it got T Balachandra, conservator of forests and director of Rajiv Gandhi National Park, Hunsur, as conservator of forests and field director, Project Tiger, Bandipur.

    Balachandra, who was appointed on February 26, has not moved out of Bandipur since, working from 6 am to 10 pm every day to ensure a repeat of such a massive tragedy doesn’t happen.

    “This incident is a lesson for all of us. Nearly 99.9% fires in India are man-made and this one was too. The high temperatures and wind speeds of 15 kmph worsened it and made it difficult to handle,” he said.

    Balachandra believes in leadership, teamwork, and responsibility and he’s wasting no time to put a system in place.

    “We have started basic firefighting training for volunteers, 100-120 per batch. It’s important to teach them that not anyone can beat a fire, and even if you have the skills for it, it’s not an easy job; it needs a lot of training and physical strength. And so, that’s what I am doing. The first thing I did after arriving is got medical insurance for the 390 new fire watchers and the 200 permanent ones along with 150 other workers, including the drivers, so that they feel safe,” he added.

    “The fire that raged last month is all out, but we have taken all kinds of precautions and have a force ready should an emergency arise.” 

    As part of the preventive measures, the forest department has recruited more than 100 fire watchers and 100 anti-poaching staffers.


    Who started the fire?

    The fire, which destroyed thousands of acres of forestland and numerous trees, needed eco-volunteers, officials, firemen, and locals along with almost 500 guards working round the clock for a week. After days, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was roped in — it used its helicopters to pour water on the affected areas.

    Punati Sridhar, principal chief conservator of forests, said, “We had actually contained the fire, but it sprang back up the next day and started spreading. Hence, we had to request IAF to help. We had also booked two men on the suspicion that they started the fire in an act of revenge.”

    A week ago, two villagers were arrested for the act and sent to judicial custody. Range Forest Officer (RFO) Puttaswami said, “The arrested men are in their 30s. It’s believed that they started the fire to stop the tigers from entering their village.” 

    Forest officials reiterated that the fire did not affect the nearby residential settlements; however, an RFO and two forest guards, identified only as Manu and Manju and belonging to the local tribal community, did sustain injuries while fighting the fire. 

    How did it spiral out of control?

    Joseph Hoover, a conservationist and wildlife activist, who has been volunteering and helping the forest officials since Day 1, said, “Simply put, the forest department of Bandipur was not prepared for any emergency — it did not have enough firefighters, and though hundreds of volunteers were present on site, it was of no use as they are not trained in this. During fire season (start and peak of summer), the department needs to take the required precautions and keep fire watchers and other required force ready, but nothing was available. Even the government’s involvement was negligible.”

    Forest officials had claimed that they didn’t come across any animal carcasses, probably because animals can sense changes in temperature and flee to safer areas, but a few small animals and reptiles that can’t run fast perished in the carnage.

    On the very first day, movement of people and vehicles was banned on NH-67, which connects Mysore and Ooty, and inter-state roads. Forest officials had also stopped issuing permits for safaris and banned tourist vehicles from entering the forest area.

    Nakul M Dev, wildlife activist from Eco Volunteers India, one of the on-site volunteers, said, “Bandipur is a dry forest, so even a small spark can snowball into a raging blaze and spread fast. What made it more of a struggle was the lack of support from the government. Nearly 10,000 to 15,000 acres of forestland was destroyed; wildlife, too, was affected — small animals and reptiles can’t run fast and died, but tigers, elephants, and other large animals, who know the forest better, fled on seeing the smoke.”

    The fire was such a huge threat that it’s effect was felt in a neighbouring state as well. P Dhanesh Kumar, wildlife warden of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, said, “The Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is located next to Bandipur; hence, we had to put all our 168 forest guards on high alert. We even sent a few of them to assist in the firefighting operation at Bandipur.”


    What did the government do?

    After the fire was completely contained on February 26, Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy conducted an aerial survey the next day to assess the damage.

    Prior to that, Forest Minister Satish Jarkiholi had visited the affected areas along with forest officials to take stock of the destruction. He’d also held a meeting with Sridhar and other officials and stated that “2,000 hectares of forestland had been burnt down”.

    Deputy Chief Minister Dr G Parameshwara said, “The forest fire in Bandipur was very saddening. The forest department worked hard to mitigate the damage. We will ensure that those responsible are given the strictest punishment.”

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