Print Edition - 2014-12-06  |  On Saturday

Frontline firefighters

  • As winter sets in, volunteer firefighters across Nepal fan out into community forests to stamp out fires before they can inflict more damage to the woods
Frontline firefighters

Dec 5, 2014-

When the rainy season comes to a close, Kamala Regmi, 37, from Sisahaniya VDC in Dang district, starts her season of high alert. From around November, she remains constantly on the lookout for the small changes in the flora that signal drier, colder days. As her eyes pick out the leaves starting to shrivel a little more, the fallen twigs on the forest floor getting a little more brittle and the moss on the rocks a little browner, she readies herself to turn into a forest-fire fighter again.

Come winter, the change in season also signals a change in Kamala’s daily schedule. In the months before, a trip to the nearby community forest would have meant time spent gathering fallen twigs and branches for firewood; in winter, dressed in yellow fire-resistant overalls and boots, she is on the lookout for piles of such twigs—drier, more inflammable now—that might present a fire hazard; and for possible plumes of smoke and other telltale signs of fire in the forest.

“We remove all the fallen twigs, needles and leaves and create ‘fire-lines’ [a clearing to prevent fires from spreading] inside the forests to prevent the possibility of conflagrations during the dry winter months,” says Regmi, who is an executive member of the community-based fire fighting group formed four years ago to protect the Deuki Community Forest Users’ Group, in Dang.

The community forest was established in 1995 and covers a total area of 1069.3 hectares.  “I, along with other members of our firefighting group, was provided with training to deal with forest fire three years ago,” Regmi says. “We have also been given firefighting equipment and hand tools, including swatters, shovels, axe-hoes, first aid kits, jumpsuits, gloves, helmets, boots, backpacks, water pumps, containers, water bottles and torches, among others.”

The team of around 20 members is provided with training before the onset of the winter fire season, which starts from February and escalates during March and April.

Whenever the group get information about fires through the patrolling team formed to monitor the forests or from any villager, they instantly meet up at a common point and take the trails that lead to the area where the fire has broken out.

Some members use water pumps to douse the fire, some shovel dirt over the fire, and others dig trenches with axe-hoes to rein in the flames.

Her team, comprising mostly women, help the community forests in the nearby areas too. In April 2012, when the Swargadwari community forest bordering the Deuki community forest caught fire, Regmi’s team put it out before it could spread further. “It took us more than six hours to contain the fire,” she say, adding, “My hand was burnt while trying to douse the fire. But I don’t regret getting involved. Not at all,” says Regmi, who is a volunteer, just like the rest of her team members.

Volunteering demands a lot. Besides the hours they put in every day during the dry months scouring the forests, the volunteers also have to deal with locals who believe that they are getting paid to put out fires. Usually, when they are putting out fires, the villagers lend a hand. However, there have also been occasions when the other members of the community, thinking that it is not their job to get involved, leave the team to fight the fires on their own.

Regmi often wishes that her fellow villagers could understand the gravity of the problem. Winter bushfires have already started this year, and Dolpa district has already reported two huge fires, both of which occurred on November 23. By December 2, a total of 11 places around the country had reported wildfires. According to the government data, bushfires burn through more than a thousand hectares of forests in Nepal annually.

To help contain and minimise such incidents, the government had, in 2010, come up with the Nepal Forest Fire Management Strategy, in accordance with which Regmi and others like her were trained and provided with fire-fighting equipment.

The programme also called for raising awareness about forest fires among locals, teaching them about control measures and bringing in technical experts to interact with the locals. And more such programmes need to be created to help fight fires across the country—both in the high-altitude regions and the Tarai districts—says Sundar Sharma, regional coordinator at the United Nations office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s  South Asia Wildland Fire Network.

According to experts, it’s not just the changing seasons that are to blame for forest fires.

Humans are, in fact, the major culprits on this score. Many of the fires can be traced to the inflammables people litter the forests with; furthermore, the local farmers’ deliberately setting forest fires to clear land for agriculture or stimulate the early growth of grass for livestock to graze only make matters worse.

“The destruction and degradation of forests due to fires is the biggest challenge for the conservation sector because it threatens the lives and livelihoods of people, along with those of the important wildlife species found inside the forests,” says Shiva Raj Bhatta, deputy director of WWF Nepal.

“Communities are playing a proactive role in minimising the risks related to forest fires but their efforts should be complemented by the government,” he says.

Regmi’s community forest user group is one of 65 among a total of 18,000 such organisations that now have a trained crew to deal with forest fires. Community forests in Nepal have been a success story that has garnered much acclaim around the world.

Less celebrated are the volunteers such as Regmi, who do what they can to save these forests.

‘Even though I don’t get paid for this, I understand that the forests’ resources are important for everyone. We need to leave our forests to our children,” says Regmi.


Published: 06-12-2014 08:39

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