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wildifires himalayas
Smoke covers villages of Rukum district as wildfires burn nearby. Photo: Samir Bolakhe

Himalayan forests are turning into new wildfire hotspots

In March 2021, a thick blanket of smoke covered Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, forcing a nationwide school shutdown and general lockdown. More than 500 km away in western Nepal, Yagya Oli could do nothing but watch as the ferocious wildfires burned the mountainous jungles around his locality at Khagal village of Rukum District.

“I hadn’t known about wildfires of such intensity in my life,” he said. “I mean, it would be just one patch today and it would be all over the place tomorrow.” 

Wildfires are presumed to be unusual across Himalayan region. In fact, Nepal didn’t even bother to track it until recently. But since the early 2010s, fires are starting to become more extreme, forcing government authorities and local communities to find new ways to adapt. 

The 2021 wildfire season was one of the most extreme to date. For the last 8 years, Nepal has experienced, on average, 462 incidents per season, according to official government data. This year, however, the country experienced more than six times that figure.

Since november 2020, the Asian country has recorded over 2,700 wildfires until the end of March, the highest number in a decade for a single wildfire season. As authorities produce new data, that figure might have reached more than 5,600 wildfires towards the end of April, according to the Kathmandu Post.

“This devastating trend is really worrying”, said Ashok Parajuli, a wildfire researcher and forest officer at the Department of Forest. “Less rainfall, prolonged dry period and plenty of unburned forest fuels bulked over the last couple of years might have been the main reason for this devastation,” Parajuli added.

Climate change is leading to more extreme wildfires in Nepal like the ones from the last fire season, the scientist said. But government authorities seriously lack strategies to control or curb its consequences.

At a global level, climate change is making wildfires bigger, hotter and faster. In 2019, wildfires across Brazil and Bolivia burnt forest areas nearly the size of Greece. The next year, Australia’s 2020 wildfire is declared among the “worst wildlife disasters in modern history”, which could have affected almost three billion wild species. 

wildifres himalayas
The 2020/2021 wildfire season in Nepal wwas the most intense in recent years. Photo: Ministry of Home Affairs.

Extreme wildfires

Using satellite data, Parajuli works on developing mathematical models to predict the pattern of future forest fires. This simulation uses data on vegetation, temperature trend, wind direction, moisture, among other factors to predict Nepal’s vulnerability to wildfires. 

The model shows that forests around Nepal’s western territories of lowland Terai Arc Landscape are especially prone to hazardous levels of fire, since the region receives less rainfall and is hotter and drier around summer. Dry vegetation in the area also contributes as fuel for wildfires.

Forest fires are actually a natural phenomena that has been ongoing for about 400 Million years. Under natural conditions, they fertilize oceans with essential compounds, help to move nutrients and to establish new vegetations in different habitats. 

But wildfires at present are quite different from what they used to be in the past. Each year, with greenhouse gases emissions exceeding historical records, researchers predict that the risks and severity of wildfires will likely worsen in many tropical forests in the coming decade, according to IPCC reports

This may be primarily driven by increase in droughts, which in turn make the vegetation and atmosphere drier: a perfect combo for flammability. The length of the fire season has also increased significantly (more than 18%) in recent decades, increasing vulnerability across Asia.

Two decades back, Nepal didn’t even count wildfires. This year, the number of incidents in one season may have surpassed 5.000, breaking all historical records.

Researchers believe there’s a consistent pattern going on. If there are fewer wildfires in a given year, forest fuels (dry vegetation) start to accumulate. If following years turn out drier, the accumulated fuels can intensify wildfires. 

“The 2019/20 wildfire season was unusually quiet. The pandemic lockdown limited anthropogenic activities as well. But this year as the nationwide drought intensified, wildfires skyrocketed,” said Sundar Prasad Sharma, undersecretary at National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA).

Smothered communities

Samir Bolakhe, project engineer at Comtronics —an energy company specializing in renewable infrastructure—traveled to one of the major affected areas in April, with the task of creating urgent water infrastructure in Rukum. Upon his arrival, he found a devastating scene.

Here, in the remotest corner of the country, flames wrapped the mountainous forests for months. “Scorching heat, excruciating dryness and the resulting smoke had shrouded the whole landscape”, Bolakhe recalled.

Rukum along with most of the western Himalayan districts are some of the remotest and geographically marginalized districts of the nation. Just a decade back, the region wasn’t even connected with roads to Nepal’s main cities.

As weather conditions have become unusually dry in recent years, Rukum’s villages have been battling with a serious water crisis. This has also increased the wildfire vulnerability. Bolakhe and his team assisted the village to tackle this problem by installing a solar water pump that could lift water from the river below.

wildfires himalaya
Kids in Rukum village’s dry landscape. Photo: Samir Bolakhe.

But this year, as the intensity of wildfire grew, villagers worried the flames could catch the houses in the community, which had no water to defend it. Instead, they resorted to their traditional knowledge.

As the wildfire approached the community, the villagers practiced their own way of controlled fire. By burning dry surrounding vegetation, the flames shifted the wildfire away from the village, the engineer explained. This essentially created a kind of fire line that protects the village.

“It’s a traditional practice going on for generations,” Oli agrees. But this may not be absolutely reliable for intense wildfires. “I think we need dedicated governmental action for its management,” he said.

Wildfire preparedness

Saraswati Aryal, deputy forest officer at Nepal’s Department of Forest, said that people in the country need to change the way they understand wildfires. “Forest fires are essentially a natural phenomena and are not as bad as they are portrayed to be”, she said. Sometimes fires are unavoidable, so there has to be better preparedness, Aryal said. 

In recent years, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in collaboration with Nepal’s Forest Department has initiated a satellite based monitoring of the wildfires. This system monitors wildfire situations and alerts the vulnerable residents about its locality and intensity through cellular messaging.

“We surely need more ways to inform and train people about wildfires, controlled burning and its precautions,” Aryal said.

Most of Nepal’s forest fires —more than 65% of them— are provoked fires, Sharma points. In spite of this, the country lacks strict rules and management to trace the people responsible for it. 

“We neither have the equipment, nor the manpower to defend intense wildfires. And most importantly no appropriate insurance mechanism. Thus people are hesitant to join fire control units when needed.” Parajuli reasoned.

According to the researcher, public policies also lack scientific information. Even though local research centers produce information on wildfire vulnerability, these models are rarely considered for mitigation planning and preparation.

Researchers worry that if the country doesn’t implement the necessary preventive measures, preparedness, and public awareness, then the years ahead could be devastating

“We are working on preparing for a 10 year long strategic action plan,” Sharma said. “Increasing fire challenge also puts pressure on the government for effective resource and funding allocation and hopefully this may create a difference.”

With the arrival of monsoon, Nepal’s peak wildfire season may be over for this year, but that should be no excuse to avoid preparedness. Discussions on disaster mitigation are extremely seasonal, Aryal said, and “this needs to change.”