When S.V. Vinod, Divisional Forest Officer, Vazhachal, and his men reached Pallikara at the foothills of the Kottambathur hills, night has fallen over the area.
Heavy smoke billowing from burnt wild grass hung heavily over the area. The death of three of their colleagues in a wildfire in the area a few hours ago had a chilling effect on the team of forest officials.
The morale was down. There was no time to mourn the death of their colleagues as the threat of the fire destroying the remaining areas remained live.
Foresters and guards sprung into action to create a 20-metre-wide fire belt, a band of land free of combustible materials, over a kilometre, to secure the remaining area. It took almost four hours for the team to complete the fire belt.
In difficult terrains
Foresters across the State are battling forest fires in difficult and inaccessible terrains similar to the Kottambathur hills. While it was the overgrown and dry wild grass at an acacia plantation leased out to a public sector company that caught fire last week, killing three forest guards, forest fires are blazing in different terrains in many parts of the State.
Till last week, as many as 113 fire incidents were reported across the State in 234.576 ha. The summer months from February to May are considered the most sensitive period in terms of fire risks in Kerala.
While there is a school of thought that forest fire is a part of the forest ecosystem processes, uncontrolled fires may destroy forest wealth, including wildlife, and put the lives of forest dwellers at peril.
In the past decade, 2010-2011 was the deadliest as 5,640 ha of forest was destroyed in 1,017 fire incidents. In 2018-19, it was 1,789 ha in 583 incidents.
“Fires in grasslands are the difficult ones to tackle as dry leaves easily catch fire. Often, wild grass grows in gaps in rocky structures which are generally inaccessible. We have to tread cautiously through steep and narrow terrains for hours to reach the fire spots. Carrying heavy fire-fighting equipment is not an ideal option in such situations. Locally developed fire beaters, a long cane with thin sheets of fire-resistant materials at one end, are the only handy equipment one can carry in such situations,” said Mr. Vinod.
Blowers are used at times to clear the land of dry leaves and other combustible materials to contain the fire. Then, there are fire responders, vehicles with water storage facility and a long hose. Though it cannot reach the fire spots, it is useful in spraying water over dry areas to prevent fire from advancing, he said.
Firefighting a risky affair
K.S. Jyothi, a forest official, said controlling forest fires was a risky affair as winds could divert the fire. Heavy winds could force the fire towards the firefighters and it would not be easy to run away from an advancing fire, he said.
“I had a close encounter with death in 2002 at Sthalamanam, under Konni forests, while trying to control a fire. Me and Sasankan, a forest guard, had to run for dear life and slide through a steep rocky terrain as the fire quickly engulfed the area where we were standing,” recounted Mr. Jyothi.
Better safety gear sought
Mr. Vinod said better protective dress for firefighters, as provided to Fire and Rescue Services personnel, was the need of the hour. More fire responders shall be deployed in fire-prone areas. The Fire and Rescue Services had bought around 4,000 fire-suits for its men, which will help them to work safely even when exposed to high temperatures.
The lightweight clothing protects the firefighters by preventing the transmission of heat to their body. Though expensive it has been found effective to a considerable extent, said a senior official of the Fire and Rescue Services Department.
President of the Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samiti N. Badusha criticised the Forest Department for what he termed its callous and irresponsible approach towards controlling forest fires.
“There have been no attempts to provide training for front-line staff in fighting fire. They need to be provided protective vests and oxygen cylinders. It is high time the department adopted modern fire-fighting devices and technology,” Mr. Badusha, one of the leading activists of the fire-free forest movement, a campaign to prevent forest fire, said.
Preventive steps sought
The department was yet to take a serious note of the fire incidents and adopt preventive measures. There should be an expert committee to estimate the loss caused by fires. The department should also declare forest fire as a disaster and involve the district disaster management authorities in combating fires, he demanded.
P.K. Kesavan, Head of Forest Force, Kerala, said the current year appeared to be better off when compared to recent years. This year, there had not been many major fire outbreaks. The accident that culminated in the loss of lives of three persons was a one-off incident.
The focus of the current season was on participatory fire management involving local eco-protection committees and such agencies.
The department was planning to undertake a comprehensive review of the situation to seek alternative measures for prevention of such situations, he said.