War against forest fires intensifies, Rajnath says no deaths

New Delhi, May 2 (IANS) IAF helicopters and government agencies stepped up their fight against raging forest fires in Uttarakhand even as officials on Monday said the blaze was “completely under control” and no death has occurred so far.

“The situation in Uttarakhand is completely under control. I can assure you that there is nothing to worry,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh informed Lok Sabha.

Some members from Uttarakhand, including former chief minister Ramesh Pokhariyal Nishank, raised their concerns.

Rajnath Singh said that shortly after the matter came to his knowledge, a team from his ministry and fire department were rushed to the state.

“Three teams of NDRF and three IAF MI-17 helicopters were also engaged in controlling the situation,” he said.

“As far as reported deaths are concerned, the local administration has not yet confirmed (deaths),” he added.

President Pranab Mukherjee, however, condoled the deaths caused by the massive forest fires in Uttarakhand.

The fires began 89 days ago and have so far destroyed nearly 3,000 acres of forest cover.

Forest Minister Prakash Javadekar on Monday said it would take two days to completely douse the flames.

The Uttarakhand administration is pinning its hopes on the rain gods, which the Met office said will oblige this week.

The IAF’s MI-17 choppers, trying to douse the forest fires, had to abort the sorties on Sunday owing to “poor visibility and thick smoke”.

“Though the rains have proved to be a big bane for us over the past few years, at this hour we are just praying that it pours,” a government official told IANS.

While more than a thousand fires are raging in different places in the state, the incidences of fire outbreaks have gone up by four times in the past 24 hours, officials said.

Additional Chief Secretary S. Ramaswamy said 40 master control rooms were set up and 1,166 fire extinguishing mobile groups had been deployed.

Every group has five to seven members. In addition, 14,000 villagers were trained to battle the fires.

One team each of the National Disaster Response Force was rushed to Nainital, Almora, Gauchar and Pauri.

“The forest fire in Uttarakhand will be completely doused in two days,” Javadekar tweeted.

“Three air force helicopters, including an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and two MI-17 helicopters with Bambi bucket, have also been deployed to assist the administration,” a union home ministry statement said.

In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, 378 incidents of forest fires have been reported.

“This is mainly in the low hills. The fires have destroyed flora and fauna in over 3,000 hectares,” a forest official said in Shimla.

The fires have threatened the world heritage Kalka-Shimla rail line at several points near Dharampur town, 65 km from Shimla.

“The sudden rise in mercury and the prolonged dry spell are mainly the reasons for these forest fires. Most fire-related cases are from the Shivalik range in Bilaspur, Hamirpur, Kangra, Solan and Sirmaur districts. A majority of them are ground fires,” principal chief forest conservator S.P. Vasudeva told IANS.

Billowing smoke from the hills of Shimla, Kasauli, Chail, Dharampur and Nahan towns have become common these days.

Forest officials said most forest fire incidents were adeliberate acts. The villagers tend to set grasslands on fire to get softer grass after the rains. In most cases, the fire from grasslands spreads to nearby forests.

According to official records, 66 percent of the Himalayan state is under forest cover. Twenty-two percent of the forest area in the state is fire prone.

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