A 2006 forest fire in Wangduephodrang that burnt around 50,000 acres of forest is said to be one of the largest recorded forest fires in recent memory
KARMA CHIMI | Thimphu
Winter is already approaching, which means the season for forest fires is not far behind. Bhutan experiences the majority of its forest fires during the windy and dry winter months.
According to statistics gathered by the Forest Protection and Enforcement Division (FPED) under Department of Forest and Park Services, from 1992 to 2021, Bhutan experienced 50 forest fire incidents on an average in a year.
The report reveals that the nation loses almost 500 acres of forest annually on an average.
The majority of forest fires, according to FPED, happens between the mid of December and the end of March during the prime winter season when the landscapes are dry and vulnerable.
FPED officials said that Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Wangdue, Bumthang, Mongar, Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse, and Pemagatshel are among the regions that are most likely to report forest fires.
Chief Forestry Officer, Kinley Tshering, of FPED said 10 national parks and reserves in the country are the custodians of the forest. Besides the parks, they have 14 Divisional Forest Offices (DFO) where the high-risk places fall under DFO areas.
“Our division are not categorized dzongkhag-wise but rather are categorized on the basis of fire prone areas,” Kinley said.
He said the division is unable to provide the exact estimates, but there is a significant loss of biodiversity wherever forest fires occur. “Our religious monuments in forested areas are also at risk when a forest fire happens,” he said.
He added that the surrounding forest are being invaded by our cities as they grow bigger and bigger. Consequently, the interface between the forest and the city is decreasing by the years.
“This puts both the safety of the forest and of people at risk. Because people frequently visit the nearby forest for various recreational purposes, there is a significant likelihood of forest fires occurring near major settlements, Kinley said.
The vulnerability of the wild-land urban interface is increasing as small villages grow and develop into towns and cities. In addition, major cities are growing and encroaching into nearby forests.
One of the biggest documented forest fires in the nation scorched over 50,000 acres in Wangdue in 2006 and spread from Taksha virtually to Wangdue on both sides of Punatshangchhu.
Additionally, he emphasized the danger to towns and cities, the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of forests, all of which function as catalysts for climate change and global warming by releasing significant amounts of greenhouse gases, ultimately posing threat to Bhutan’s commitment of being a carbon-neutral nation.
Forest fires in Bhutan has resulted in loss of two community fire volunteers in Punakha (2010), one individual in Mongar (2012) and two individuals in Thimphu (2012) according to FPED.
Further, injuries to firefighters and damage to properties have unrecorded incidences across the country.
Causes of Forest Fires
The majority of forest fires in Bhutan, according to FPED, are human-caused.
Wildfires are mostly human-induced, and the use of fire is customary in the preparation of land for agriculture, chasing animals for hunting, charcoal making, renewal of green grass, removal of insects, weeds, wildlife among others said FPED.
The division provides other reasons like fire ignited from careless disposal of cigarette butt, children playing with ignition material (matches and lighter), fires escaped from unattended fire by roadside workers, campfire and picnickers and fire initiated from transmission lines, electrical short circuit and faulty transformers and spread of fire from burning properties (houses.)
While one percent of the time, which is a rare occurrence, is linked to natural causes like lightning and rocks rolling together and igniting a spark.
“It is difficult to persuade the people and their behaviour mindsets to change overnight, so we are providing with timely awareness and advocacy program,” said the chief forestry officer Kinley.
FPED have stated that geographical and steep terrains also prove to be the most challenging factors while containing forest fires.
Accessibility on the other hand is another issue whereby fire fighters and volunteers have to go to inaccessible places to contain the fires.
While there are no appropriate tools and equipment while we contain the fire, weather conditions also hinders while they are at their tasks.
Inter-Agency Forest Fire Coordination Group (IFFCG) which was started in 2019 acts as an operating protocol for the officials to come together when there are fire incidences.
IFFCG’s member includes officials from forest, Royal Bhutan Police, Royal Bhutan Army, Dzongkhag administrations and Desuung who are deployed in fire prone areas and districts.
“Whenever there are fire incidences, these groups come together to retain the forest fire proving to be one of the most effective and successful coordination mechanisms,” said Kinley Tshering.
He added that whenever fire season approaches, they have advocacy and awareness programs. FPED for this year have made an advocacy program which will be aired through Bhutan Broadcasting Service.
“In order to reduce and minimize forest fire, it is important that we continue with our advocacy and awareness programs. We are targeting people to change their behaviour,” Kinley said.
FPED officials said that they are now going towards initiatives called prescribed burn wherein the high risk of forest fire occurrence is burnt purposefully beforehand to reduce the fuel load and burn control the area so that it does not affect the surrounding area and forest.
This year they have a target of 50 hectares of area in fire prone regions for the prescribed burn program. Another initiative is, based on the severity, the forest department plants trees in those vulnerable areas.