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Sandakphu blaze fuels war of words
Dry-spell doom

Darjeeling, March 5: With a forest fire raging at Sandakphu ' along the Singalila National Park ' since last night, a virtual war of words broke out between the forest department and environmentalists in Darjeeling today.

The Federation of Societies of Environment Protection (Fosep) alleged that negligence was the reason for the fire breaking out at Gordung, near the popular rhododendron trekking trail to Sandakphu. No casualties were reported.

Bharat Prakash Rai, secretary, Fosep, said: 'After the fire at Sikkim, we were expecting the forest department to be more vigilant. The department should have conducted drills with the local people at regular intervals to prevent such fires, but did nothing. It is a case of negligence.'

The environment group came up with a long list of complaints against the forest department starting from lack of forest personnel in the area to the delayed response in stopping the fire.

'We have our members at Maneybhanjanyan, Kalpokhri, Sandakphu and Phalut who were informed about the fire last night. We tried to contact the forest officials immediately, but could not. We then went to the divisional forest officer (DFO)'s office this morning and he flatly refused to take our help despite not having enough resources at his disposal,' said Rai.

Sandakphu, apart from being a world famous trekking trail, is also home to endangered animals like the red panda and is considered a haven for rhododendrons with more than 35 varieties found in abundance in the area.

'They only have three temporary staff members at Sandakphu as many people refuse to work in the inhospitable terrain,' alleged Rai.

The forest department, however, clarified its stand with equal aplomb. 'They are making noises staying in Darjeeling. We have conducted necessary drills and have already send around 50-60 men to control the fire. The fire was a ground blaze and not the devastating crown fire (on trees),' said V.K. Sood, DFO, Darjeeling Wildlife Division 1. Sources said the blaze had spread over an area of about 20-25 hectares because of windy conditions.

Another fire had broken out in the forests within the Happy Valley tea estate this evening. The blaze was put out with local help. Few bushes were damaged.

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