BY VISHAL GULATI
Shimla, May 30 (IANS): Unseasonal excess summer rains affected lakhs of hectares of to be harvested crops in Himachal Pradesh, but came as blessing in disguise for forests that largely turns into tinderboxes with the rise in mercury every year in May.
As per government estimates, the state's forest wealth accounts for 68.16 per cent of the total geographic area that is rich in biodiversity and plays a vital role in preserving the fragile Himalayan ecology.
As per government data, 1,200 to 2,500 forest fires are reported in the state every year. Mid and low hills in Shimla, Solan, Bilaspur, Una, Hamirpur, Kangra, Mandi and Sirmaur are the worst-affected.
With the onset of May, a majority of the fires are reported from pine forests when the trees shed pine needles that are highly inflammable due to the rich content of turpentine oil.
The pine forests are found up to an altitude of 5,500 feet.
The main reason for the forest fires is the long dry spell and the abnormal increase in temperatures.
Official figures show 2018 was the worst year with 2,469 fire incidents reported -- the highest in eight years -- that gobbled up 25,300 hectares of forest across the state.
Taking into consideration the problem of forest fires, the government adopts a fire management strategy before the onset of the peak summer season.
"This year the summer is not quite harsh but still the government focused on forest fire management strategies like setting up strategic fire centres and coordination among various departments," a government spokesperson told IANS on Tuesday.
The Forest Department has prepared a fire mapping system to control the fire and has prepared a list of sensitive forests wherein close coordination with panchayats and local communities has been established, Chief Minister Sukhvinder Sukhu said, as per an official statement.
Besides, officers of the Forest Department have held several meetings through virtual mode with field staff and elected representatives of the panchayats.
Billowing smoke from the hills of Shimla, Kasauli, Chail, Dharampur and Nahan towns are uncommon these days.
Likewise, there is no report of any major forest fire in the neighbouring hill state of Uttarakhand.
Forest officials say most forest fire incidents are deliberate acts. The villagers also tend to set grasslands afire to get softer grass after the rains. In most cases, the fire from grasslands spreads to nearby forests that cause damage to wildlife, including breeding pairs of birds like the red jungle fowl.
According to the meteorological office here, the average rainfall in the state in May is 61.2 mm. "Till date we had 109.8 mm in May, which is 79 per cent higher than the average rainfall," an official told IANS.
For conservation, scientific management and sustainable use of pine forest residue that can be used as biofuel, an alternative to alleviate dependence on fossil fuel, the government is planning to produce compressed biogas (CBG) from pine needles.
Last month it signed a memorandum of understanding with Oil India Ltd (OIL) and is planning to start a pilot project for the bioconversion of pine needles into biofuel.
The utilisation of pine needles for biofuel production through pyrolysis and other techniques will be a sustainable way to deal with the forest fires as well as the energy crisis.
The pine needle fall starts in April and continues till the beginning of July.
On an average, a pine forest yields two to three tonnes of needles per hectare during a season and the state has pine forests spread over 1,500 square km.