A massive fire has erupted in a huge stretch of chilgoza pine natural forest, an important conifer of the Western Himalayas, just ahead of the cold desert in Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh, posing threat to the endemic wildlife too.
Locals on Sunday said the fire, in the past three days, has burnt down thousands of native chilgoza, juniper, and birch trees in the Akpa-Jangi region of Pooh division with no major initiative by the government to bring it under control despite the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) being stationed there to man the Indo-China border that lies ahead.
The forest, located at a 10-hour drive from the state capital Shimla, is one of the biggest chilgoza pine forests in the country.
Spread in inner dry tracts of temperate zones of North-Western Himalayas at an altitude from 1,800m to 3,000m above the sea level, the forest is home to the Himalayan tahr, the black bear, and the blue sheep.
“Due to the massive forest fire, the only world famous and most endangered plant species chilgoza is under threat,” local Chhering Tandup said.
The chilgoza pine faces the risk of extinction. Jangi village is one of the main sources of chilgozas in India. “If the government failed to timely intervene to extinguish the forest fire, the near to extinction species will extinct in days to come,” he said.
The chilgoza pine, a slow growing tree with an average life of 150-200 years, is the only conifer which bears highly nutritious edible nuts. It is one of the indigenous and socioeconomically important conifers of inner drier regions of the state.
Nature Watch India national convener Rajeshwar Negi told IANS the chilgoza pine (pinus gerardiana) trees are a source of livelihood for people in remote areas of the state.
He said the state government should order an inquiry into the failure of the district administration to either control the fire, or report and seek the assistance of the state and central governments.
“This summer season forest fires are a common sight across the state largely due to lack of preventive steps taken by the Forest Department. Billowing smoke from the hills of Shimla has become common these days. A huge track of forest in the Tara Devi hills (overlooking Shimla town) was ravaged in the past,” he said.
“Now the precious chilgoza pine forest is burning and nobody is there to take care of. It is the last stretch of the natural forest just ahead of the cold desert,” he added.
Negi demanded a detailed survey of the loss and damage caused by the forest fire to the flora and fauna.
Tandup said the locals are anguished with the government because of the delay in extinguishing the fire. “Usually when forest fires take place, local villagers extinguished it at local level but this time the scale of forest fire is at large so it is not possible for local population to control the fire,” he said.
“Though local authorities are assisting the locals to control the fire, it is not possible for them to extinguish it. We are demanding the use of helicopter service to control the fire so that the most endangered plant species chilgoza can be saved from extinction,” Tandup, who belongs to Jangi village, told IANS over phone.
Forest officials say most forest fire incidents are deliberate acts. The villagers also tend to set grasslands afire to get softer grass after the rains. In most cases, the fire from grasslands spreads to nearby forests.
Besides Kinnaur, Chamba district’s Pangi and Bharmour areas have small patches of chilgoza trees.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)