The Odisha government on Monday formed a task force on Forest Fire Management to fight raging bushfires in the Similipal biosphere reserve in Mayurbhanj district and three other wildlife habitats and warned of strict action against those setting fire to the forests.
A notification of state forest department said a task force headed by former principal chief conservator of forests of Odisha, Dr. Sandeep Tripathy will review the current forest fires, causes and immediate containment. It will also suggest measures for augmentation of existing fire management protocols including Geomatics-based Fire Alert System. The other members of the team include current PCCF Jitendra Kumar, chief wildlife warden Shashi Paul, director general of Forest Survey of India Pankaj Agarwal as well as representative of director general ICFRE Dehradun, member of local NGO and a journalist from Mayurbhanj.
The taskforce will recommend suggestions for improved community participation in fire management and prevention, conduct post assessment of forest fire-affected area, loss to wildlife, biodiversity and suggest appropriate measures for augmentation and give suggestions for improvement of SOP for fire prevention and management in the state to prevent such occurrences.
The constitution of the task force came even as the state reported over 23,325 forest fires in the last 7 days, the highest in the country. On Monday, Odisha reported 668 large fires, which was more than 60 per cent of the total large fire incidents in the country. In Similipal tiger reserve, where fires are still being reported from many parts of the buffer zone, a local outfit ‘Bhanja Sena’ has called for a 12-hour bandh in Mayurbhanj district March 10 to protest the administration’s failure in controlling the fire.
Environmental activist Biswajit Mohanty said the blame for failure in controlling the forest fires should be squarely put on the shoulders of PCCF. “A quick survey of Telkoi Range in Keonjhar district reveals they have just 27 squad members whereas requirement is at least 10 times. The department is badly understaffed. The fire squads are understaffed due to improper assessment by senior officers who approved plans. The department needs to spend ₹300 crores and ₹50 crores every year. At least Rs. 30,000 crores of timber is lost due to fire every year,” alleged Mohanty.
Fires have been reported from Kuldiha sanctuary in Balasore, Satkosia sanctuary in Anugul and Sunabeda sanctuary in Nuapara district. In Kuldiha sanctuary fire erupted from Nandia hills and spread to other parts of the jungle posing serious threat to the wildlife. “The situation is alarming like that of Similipal. The forest department must realise the importance of community participation and community ownership of forest, the key to forest protection,” said senior Congress leader Sudarshan Das.
Principal chief conservator of forests, Jitendra Kumar said wildfires in forest areas of the State are not new but a natural phenomenon. “Like every year, fires generally spread on bushes and shrubs but do not affect trees. We have had no case of crown fire this year,” he said. “The rise in forest fires over Odisha this year is due to rise in daytime temperatures and lack of winter rains.”
Congress chief whip Mohan Charan Majhi, however, said it has been an abject failure on the part of the government in controlling the fires and the task force would not serve any purpose.
“As many 668 large forest fires have been reported in Odisha today. While the government is claiming that the fires have been doused, the actual scenario tells a different story. Despite availability of modern techniques to contain wildfire, the government has failed to do so,” he said.
BJP MLA Subhash Panigrahi alleged that the government is intentionally setting the forests on fire to cover up the misuse in Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) fund.
Meanwhile, in Baripada, Divisional Forest Officer Santosh Joshi has cancelled leaves of all forest staff under the division even as fresh reports of fire incidents have been reported from several points under Udala, Dujura, Bangiriposi, Rasgovindpur ranges close to Similipal biosphere reserve. A tribal man named Pradhan Hembram was on Monday arrested on charges of setting fire the Badampahar reserve forest under Dudhiani range.
In Sambalpur division, DFO Sanjeet Kumar warned of stringent legal action against those found intentionally setting forest on fire. “People found setting fire to forest areas will be put behind bars without any delay,” he said and announced a provision of cash award of ₹5000 for anyone who informs about people setting fire in forest areas.
“Mass awareness is being created and we have appealed to the public to cooperate with the forest department. Setting forest on fire is a punishable offence under the Odisha Forest Act and one(s) found guilty of such crime may be punished with a jail term of 3 to 7 years,” said Sanjeet Kumar.