Smoke Screen

Climate breakdown is not the only reason for this year's unprecedented wildfires across Nepal

The Armed Police Force attempting to get a forest fire under control at the Baijnath Community Forest in Kanchanpur's Suklaphanta Minicipality on 27 April. Photo: Rajendra Prasad Paneru/RSS

Anyone following Nepal’s mainstream press this week to find out what is happening would conclude that there was: a) an investment summit, b) a couple of by-elections, and c) another scandal involving Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane. 

But there is a full scale national emergency that has got scant coverage — thousands of forest fires have been raging across Nepal for more than a month. They have done incalculable damage to the economy, the ecology, and reduced the average lifespan of Nepalis due to dangerous air pollution. 

Any other accountable government would set aside everything else and go into fire-fighting mode on a war footing. Not here. There is no indication that state agencies have gauged or understood the sheer extent of this disaster.

The media should have sent alarm bells ringing. But its gatekeepers and owners in Kathmandu decide what is important, they get to decide what to report and what not to report. They select which items of news should get due prominence.

Normalising this fire calamity and treating it like just another annual event is burying our head in the sand. Not recognising the urgency and seriousness of this year’s prolonged fire season is a disastrous failure.

The spring of 2009 and 2021 were bad, but the fires then were not as widespread and long-lasting as this year. Since early March, there have been tens of thousands of fires, many of which are still burning out of control across the country, consuming entire mountainsides, incinerating villages and killing dozens.

There are many reasons why this year has been particularly bad, but putting the blame solely on climate change misses the bigger picture. In spring villagers deliberately set fire to grasslands so new shoots will grow out of the ashes for livestock to graze on once the rains come.

Poachers have also been known to set fire to forests to trap deer as they flee. In the Tarai, fringes of the jungles are deliberately torched by the real estate mafia.

This spring, the countryside was tinder dry due to a prolonged winter drought. Nepal’s forest cover has doubled in the past three decades to nearly 45% of the country’s area. Mass outmigration from the rural mountains means there are fewer people foraging for fuel and fodder in the forests. The undergrowth was therefore loaded with highly combustible dried-out biomass waiting for a spark.

A record-breaking early summer heat wave this year desiccated the soil, already dry because of over-extraction of ground water for agriculture, and neglect of traditional ponds. All it took was a match to light the dry grass at the bottom of a mountain to set the whole place ablaze.

Smoke Screen Editorial NT #1210
A NASA FIRMS image showing fires burning on 29 April all over Nepal and India.

Another source of smoke, as this paper reported recently, is the growing trend of farmers in the Tarai burning wheat stalk in the fields after harvest because of lack of labour due to outmigration.

Nepal’s air pollution has been at dangerous levels for months, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) that measures the concentration of harmful particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter at 250-300 for prolonged periods. All this smoke and Kathmandu’s own vehicular emissions have made it the world’s most polluted city for weeks now, making COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) the most common ailment in hospitals. 

Besides reducing lifespans of citizens, the smoke is doing immense damage to the economy. Pokhara airport has been mostly closed this week due to poor visibility during the peak tourist season. Hundreds of tourists who come to Nepal to see the mountains have not seen any —not even Sarangkot is visible from Lakeside in Pokhara. Thousands of tourists are stranded at various airports.

The smoke and ash from the unprecedented fires has been transported up the mountains to be deposited on already-receding glaciers, melting them even faster because of the reduced reflectivity of dirty ice. 

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, with its unwieldy acronym NDRRMA, should be paying as much attention to fire disasters as it devotes to earthquakes and floods.

Soon, the pre-monsoon rains will douse the fires, and our fatalistic society will forget about wildfires for another year. Then the season of ‘natural disasters’ like floods and landslides will be upon us and we are not adequately prepared for it either.

It is too late to do anything about this year’s disaster, but here is a checklist for the 2025 wildfire season: 

  • Ward-level awareness campaign and punitive measures against pyromaniacs. 
  • Train security agencies and equip them with firefighting equipment.
  • Fit Nepal Army helicopters with water bombing gear to fight fires in difficult terrain. 
  • Firelines and forest management to reduce combustible undergrowth.