More pre-monsoon forest fires in Nepal

Government inaction, legal ambiguity, climate change and disregard for traditional knowledge increase wildfire risk

Forest fire in Manang. Photo: RSS

Four people from Arghakhanchi and one from Dailekh died this week from injuries sustained while trying to put out wildfires fanned by high winds near their communities. Ten more people were injured in a forest blaze in Dailekh’s Aathbis Municipality.

NASA satellite data shows that there were wildfires in 1,196 locations in the last five months, out of which 808 of the fires were under the Division Forest Office, while 388 were in national parks. Of the 808 fires within the purview of the district forest office, most occurred within the Lamjung Division Forest Office. 

Meanwhile, forests in the Chitwan National Park and the buffer zone have recorded 100 fires: the most out of any protected area. Bagmati Province, with 278 fires, had the highest number of wildfires. More than 80% of wildfires in Nepal occur during the dry season between February to May, reaching its peak in mid-April. According to the Department of Forestry and Land Conservation, wildfires burn 200,000 hectares of forest area in Nepal each year, causing an estimated loss of more than Rs2 billion annually. 

According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA), 769 people have died and 2,568 have been injured in 18,791 wildfires in Nepal from 2013 to 2023, and the financial loss has been worth more than Rs22 billion. 

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Infrared hotspots detected by the NASA FIRMS Satellite over Nepal on 12 May at noon. Map: NASA FIRMS

One reason there are more fires is because there are just more forests. Nepal's forest cover doubled in the past 30 years, and since they are strictly protected there is a lot of dry flammable material in the undergrowth.

Anil Pokharel, executive head of NDRRMA, says that wildfires have increased tenfold in the last decade and that there have been five times as many wildfires this year than there were last year mainly because of a prolonged winter drought. “We did not expect that there would be such a large number of forest fires this year,” adds Pokharel. “It has been horrific.”

Deputy secretary and wildfire expert Sundar Sharma says that inadequate record-keeping measures mean the actual numbers of wildfires are higher than official figures. The lack of detailed study of wildfires has also meant that there has been no preparation and preparedness plan, and by the time work starts, it is too late.

Rameshowr Marhatta, joint secretary at the NDRRMA, says that even as fires rage across the country, the authorities have not been able to do much more than provide first response. “Right now, we have just been delivering fire fighting equipment from district to district, and as such we have not been able to properly study the wildfires,” he adds. “This is because we lack manpower, and Sundar Sharma is the only wildfire expert we currently have on the team.” 

According to the report, Amplified Drought Trend in Nepal Increases the Potential for Himalayan Wild Fire by Binod Pokharel, associate professor at Tribhuvan University’s Central Department of Water and Meteorology, wildfires in Nepal will increase by 12% by 2030, 30% by 2050, and 50% by the end of this century as the climate crisis intensifies along the Himalaya. 

Read also: Nepal is going up in smoke, Kunda Dixit

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Wildfire seen spreading through Nuwakot's Bidur municipality.

It’s getting hot out here 

Most of the wildfires are human induced. Early summer is the peak season when herders and farmers set fire to crop residue or pastures to make greenshoots grow when the rains come. But with long winter droughts, the slopes are tinder dry and the fires spread out of control when they are fanned by up-valley winds.

Strict rules to protect national parks and community forests also means there is a lot of dry biomass in the jungle floor, which makes it easy for forest to spread -- especially where highways pass through nature reserves like Bardia, Chitwan, or Parsa.

“In the past, forest fires used to be naturally occurring, but at present, they happen increasingly due to human factors, either unintentional or deliberate,” says forester Bhola Bhattarai, “People have been known to set fire to the forests to hide evidence of theft of flora and fauna, smuggling, and even to plant new plants.”

Research conducted by Monash University in Australia found that climate change directly contributes to increasing wildfires globally. An article published in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that climate change helps fuel oxygen and fire sources.

Climate change has also brought about changes in rainfall patterns, leading to more frequent and prolonged droughts across the world. A 2021 report published in German Watch had Nepal as the ninth most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change.

But lifestyle changes have contributed just as significantly to increasing wildfires, says Nurendra Aryal, chief conservation officer of the Api-Nampa Conservation Area. Mass migration from villages to cities and outside Nepal has meant that forest management has fallen behind, undermining traditional practices that helped in preventing forest fires.

Indeed, across Nepal’s villages, the practice of collecting and managing dry leaves, twigs and branches, and firewood that litter the forest floors and barren farmlands which catch fire quickly during the dry season have been all but abandoned. Managing dry leaves and twigs has become a major challenge. Cattle-rearing has stopped, and consequently, the number of people dependent on the forest for their livelihood has decreased. 

“Our traditional practice of collecting forest and farm debris and utilising them must be encouraged,” says Aryal. “The leaves, for instance, can be collected and turned into charcoal and then sold.”

An apathetic government

Nepal’s Ministry of Forests introduced the Forest Fire Management Strategy in 2010, but the implementation has been lax. A budget of Rs13 billion has been assigned to the Ministry of Forests this fiscal year. Of this, only Rs22 million has been set aside for wildfire management. Meanwhile, Rs1.6 billion has been allocated for the NDRRMA, out of which Rs5 million has already been spent on wildfire control so far.

The government sends about Rs500,000 annually to each forest office for wildfire control. A part of it is used to purchase firefighting equipment including fireproof jackets, helmets, gloves, backpacks and the like, while some of it goes towards conducting awareness programmes. 

“Aside from budget gaps, Nepal’s forest offices lack up-to-date resources as well as qualified personnel to fight wildfires,” says wildfire expert Sundar Sharma. “We cannot partake in effective and result-oriented work as long as we do not have an integrated management system and a responsible institution.”

Nepal Police, Nepal Army and the Armed Police Force have been coordinating with forest research and training centres under the Ministry of Forest to control wildfires. But the efforts will be successful only if there is sufficient budget, necessary equipment and skilled human resource, says Rajendra Khadka of the Armed Police Force.

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Meanwhile, the government has been trying to control fires with water bombing helicopters, which is not very effective. “Rather than have manpower and up-to-date equipment, the government has been conducting unnecessary stunts by using helicopters to fight wildfires, which is expensive, cumbersome, and impossible to send to every single affected area,” says Lokraj Nepal of the Chitwan Forest Division.

Those who set forest fires are punishable under The Forests Act, 2019 and can be imprisoned for three years, pay a fine of Rs60,000, or both. However, authorities have no information about how many offenders have been prosecuted so far. the culprits in the deadly Arghakhanchi fires this week have not yet been identified.

In 2020 the government rendered its Scientific Forest Management Guideline, 2014 null and void, effectively banning the collection, transportation and felling of wood. Consumers now have no incentive to protect the forests and this has led to an indifference towards wildfire control and increased forest fires, say experts.

However, Sadhu Ram Chaulagain, president of the Hetaunda chapter of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal, refutes such claims. He says: “The truth is that the drought during last year’s winter and the increasing wildfires have stretched out local manpower thin. Otherwise, our community has a deep connection to the forest.”

Pravin Bidari, chief of the Forest Division Office, Bardia says that more than half of the 281 community forest users in his division have been actively fighting wildfires, a sentiment which is echoed by Bharti Pathak, president of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal.

“It’s not like anyone can sleep in peace while fires rage around their house. But one is not able to do much without technology or adequate manpower,” she says, adding that if the government were to provide advanced equipment to more than 22,000 community forests across the country to facilitate wildfire control, locals would not have to show up at the scene dressed inadequately— armed simply with buckets and sticks.

"Local and provincial governments have shown no desire to coordinate with us," Pathak continues. “After the fire is over, they will send someone over to hold a wildfire-related awareness program, and consider their job done.”

Nepal lacks a clear policy on wildfire control, and as such, there has long been confusion over authority and jurisdiction in all three tiers of the government. Home Ministry spokesperson Jitendra Basnet argues that the NDRRMA carries more responsibility over fire control than the ministries.

Meanwhile, Devesh Mani Tripathi of the Department of Forests and Soil Conservation, which is under the Ministry of Forests and Environment, says that since the provincial government has the authority to manage national forests, wildfire control should also fall under its purview.

"A large amount of money has been sent to the provinces for fire control, so it is them who have a major role to play,” says Tripathi. Bagmati province has had a forest department since 2018, while the Madhes province has recently begun smart patrolling in forests. But much as the provinces have made efforts, Tripathi says, a lack of budget and an abundance of legal hurdles have caused problems.

Read also: Central Nepal engulfed in smoke

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Police work to put out a forest fire in Tanahu's Bandipur Rural Municipality. Photo: RSS

But the real issue lies with the fact that the government is yet o take wildfire control seriously, says Sundar Sharma: “So far, we haven’t had an accountable authority to oversee wildfire control. Our forests will continue to burn and Nepalis will continue to suffer as long as we do have an institutional body to address the disaster.”

Increasing wildfires also threaten Nepal’s diverse ecosystems, putting biodiversity at risk. Alternatively, when fires raze the habitats of animals, it has led to an increase in human-animal conflicts.

 But while western Tarai is most impacted by wildfires, Nepal’s low-risk Himalayan region has not been spared. Much of yarsagumba, cypress trees, birch trees and other vegetation have been lost to increasing fires in the Himalaya where it takes up to 15 years for a plant to grow by one meter. 

“There is such diversity of species in the Himalaya even within relatively small areas that it is impossible to undo the damage caused by wildfires,” says Narayan Ghimire, an associate professor at the Department of Botany at Tribhuvan University. “We risk losing it all if something is not done.”

In the Manaslu Conservation Area, 200 hectares of land have been subject to wildfires caused by yarsagumba hunters and cattle herders who believe that setting fire to the land will cause the grass to grow. Manaslu Conservation Area chief Pashupati Adhikari notes that situations like this are the result of an inactive nature conservation fund.

Annapurna Conservation Area has also seen an increase in wildfire this year, affecting the habitats of musk deer, snow leopards, and the Himalayan bluesheep. “Large animals may be able to escape wildfires, but animals with young babies and birds that have just laid eggs will not abandon their offspring and will perish, as will small reptiles, insects, and ants,” explains ACAP head Lokendra Adhikari.

In the Tarai, construction of fire lines, early warning systems, and fire control patrol dispatched to 67 locations within the protected area have helped greatly in controlling wildfires, says Chitwan National Park chief Jil Bahadur Pun.

Says Pun: “Having fire lines has meant that the wildfires do not spread from one location to another, which is why there has not been a big threat to the biodiversity in Chitwan National Park so far.”

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