Forest fire as seen from Kurintar this week | Photo by: Manis Misra
Forest fire as seen from Kurintar this week | Photo by: Manis Misra

News

Increasing forest fires — a serious problem for Nepal

By Rima Sah |

डढेलो लाग्यो त्यो पारी डाँडा साँझतिर,

लौ है फेरि, मनमा मेरो लाग्यो पीर

It's the time of the year when Nepal’s forests have started experiencing intense fires — the peak fire season typically begins in early March and lasts for around 12 weeks. 

As of 12 April 2023, 273 forest fire incidents have been reported since 01 January 2020, reports the Nepal Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Portal.

With 22 incidents, Kathmandu has seen the highest number of incidents followed by Kaski (21), Dhankuta (21), Okhaldhunga (18), Pyuthan (15), and Terhathum (14).

With 40% of Nepal’s geographical area covered by forests, the increase in frequency and intensity of forest fires leaves Nepal with another climate-related vulnerability to zero in on — apart from yearly recurring floods and landslides in the months of monsoon and hotter climate and melting Himalayas. 

The nation’s invaluable asset — its forest resource that it took decades to restore is also at stake.

To add to all that, forest fires are also taking ugly turns.

In March 2021, concerned authorities issued a red alert (health emergency) and enforced school closure for four days in Kathmandu Valley, in fact across Nepal, to lessen the adverse health effects of the drastic drop in air quality resulting from fires in the surrounding hills like Shivapuri and Nagarjuna that covered the valley with smog.

The Kathmandu Valley ranks as one of the most polluted cities globally — one of the reasons being forest fires with air quality dropping to the worst levels in the peak fire season. The air quality index was 195 on average on 12th April 2023. 

Similarly, a fire incident in the last week of February this year destroyed 14 houses in Aathrai Rural Municipality-6 in Terhathum district, which started from a nearby forest, reports The Kathmandu Post. 

From a climate change perspective, the increase in frequency and intensity of forest fires are strongly associated with the climate crisis — with conditions getting hotter and drier and much less rainfall than usual in the months of winter. 

Although Nepal-based studies that link climate conditions with the frequency and intensity of forest fires are scant, recent climate trends reveal that Nepal has been experiencing long dry spells and lesser rainfall during winter — leaving the soil dry and exposed to fire hazards.

In 2021, Nepal received only 15.4 mm of rainfall in contrast to the average 60.5mm of rainfall that it receives during the months of December to February — the winter months in the country. This year the country received even lesser rainfall — only 19.9% precipitation during the winter leaving the soil dry and vulnerable to fire crisis. 

As the hot weather has just begun, chances are fire incidents in forest regions will soar in the coming days.

Forest fires have huge social, environmental, and economic implications.

They pose a great deal of bad to a large section of the Nepalis population who rely on forests for everyday needs and livelihoods — fuel, wood, water, timber, and grazing.

As forest fires release large amounts of smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the disaster further contributes to the climate crisis through a feedback loop. Forest damages also mean the loss of an irreplaceable source of natural carbon sinks and harm to biodiversity and habitats of endangered species.

To manage the risks of forest fires, it is important to understand the climate relationship with forest fires, and other anthropogenic activities like open burning of the crop remains on the farm areas. 

Building effective emergency fire response mechanisms is equally important — for instance, the provision of advanced firefighting equipment, aerial firefighting, water tankers and well-equipped and trained firefighters, and better disaster coordination between local, provincial, and federal authorities in controlling blazes.

Rima Sah is a researcher/writer at the_farsight. She is a graduate in Sociology from South Asian University.

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