Wildfires in Nepal cause air quality to plummet

Smoke from wildfires was thick enough to nearly block out the sun in Kathmandu. Photos: KUNDA DIXIT

Kathmandu Valley endured one of the worst air quality in recent years on Friday as wildfires fanned by strong winds scorched forests in the Himalayan foothills.

NASA Worldview satellite photograph taken at 1300hrs on 26 March showed thick smoke being blown into Himalayan Valleys and across northern India.

Most of Central Nepal has seen an unusually dry winter with only 15% of the normal precipitation in January and February, and this has left the slopes tinder dry. This is also the time of year when farmers burn crop residue and brush to make fields ready to sow maize.

Fire races through the undergrowth in a hardwood forest in Rautahat district on Friday afternoon, one of many big flare-ups that smothered Central Nepal in smoke on Friday. Photo: Mukesh Pokhrel
The AQI in Kathmandu at 1500hr on Friday was the worst in recent years: 632, which is nearly 20 times more hazardous than what WHO says is safe to breathe.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Kathmandu Valley at 1500hrs was 632, which is nearly 20 times worse than what the World Health Organisation regards as being safe to breathe. Even in the most polluted afternoons at this time of year, the AQI in Kathmandu’s city centre is below 150.

Many people in Kathmandu complained of a burning sensation in the eyes and difficulty breathing as the Valley was shrouded in smoke that was thick enough to block the afternoon sun.

A NASA Worldview satellite image taken at 1300hrs on Friday showed thick smoke being blown right across the foothills of the eastern Himalaya.
Smoke blankets the East-West Highway near Chandranighapur in the Tarai on Friday evening. Photo: Mukesh Pokhrel

Most domestic flights to Kathmandu were cancelled after 1pm, and international flights were either cancelled or diverted because the visibility dropped below 800m.

A Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong diverted to Delhi, while a Nepal Airlines flight from Delhi landed after holding for over an hour. A Himalaya Airlines flight from Dammam also had to divert.


Adding to the smoke from the wildfire that has also been sand dust blowing from the Arabian and Indian deserts for the past week, and this is compounded by crossborder industrial pollution as well as Kathmandu’s own vehicular emission.

The wildfires are too extensive for Nepal’s meager fire-fighting capability, and besides the blaze is in steep and inaccessible slopes and being spread rapidly by up-valley afternoon winds.

Wildfires have been common this winter and spring in Kaski and Dhading and Rasuwa districts in central Nepal burning for months. One fire in the forests of lower Manang burnt continuously from November to January.

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