Joshimath (Uttaranchal), June 3: Raging forest fires, which claimed a life in Tehri and caused serious burn injuries to two in Karanprayag, have darkened the skies with the smoke they have been billowing for a week in the Garhwal hills.
One-third of the Kedarnath and Karanprayag pine and fir forests have been reduced to ashes. Smoke blanketing mountains has affected the daily Kedarnath helicopter service.
The worst affected are pine forests around Lansdowne hill station. From its highest picnic spot, Tiffin Top, the fabulous view of the snow-capped 250-km-long Himalayan range is no longer visible because of smoke from the forest fires that started around May 30.
Two persons on a scooter are reported to have started the fire, range officer Narayan Singh Negi said. They were chased but could not be caught.
A forest watchman trying to put out a blaze in Tehri died and a forest guard and civilian were badly burned in Karanprayag. They have been hospitalised. The smoke has caused several respiratory ailments. A number of people are suffering from coughs and allergies.
The fires have not only destroyed trees but also threaten wildlife. Deer and other animals are found running to streams to escape the blaze.
Large snakes, particularly pythons, who are unable to outrun the fires, roll down hillsides to reach village paths, which are free of fire. Half-roasted by the fire, the snakes remain there, only to be stoned to death by children.
Summer forest fires are endemic to these hills. When the fires ravaged a large area some years ago, the local MP, retired major-general B.C. Khanduri, now minister for surface transport, accused forest department officials of starting the blaze.
He said the World Bank had advanced large loans for planting forests on some hills. But while nothing was planted in some areas, the money allocated for this had already been spent, with some finding its way into officials’ pockets. To erase evidence, officials themselves started the fires in order to say the plantations had burned down, Khanduri said.
But the forest department denied this. It accused villagers of starting the fires to obtain a richer grass crop after smearing the ground with ashes. The department also said poachers sometimes start the fires to lure wild animals to the tender new grass so as to make it easier to hunt them.
Until now, not much evidence has been found to suggest who starts the fires. But it is well known that the forest department does little to put them out.