Debsi Forest Fire (File picture)

Human carelessness is the leading cause of forest fires in Bhutan

According to the Department of Forests and Park Services, almost all forest fires in Bhutan are caused by human error or carelessness.

The number of forest fires and the area burned in hectares (ha) has increased dramatically over the years, with 2021 having the highest recorded number of fire incidences (43 numbers).

In 2019, there were 40 cases of forest fire with 3524.72 ha of area burned, 26 cases of forest fire in 2020 with 2387.14 ha of area burned, 43 cases of forest fire in 2021 with 4308.05 ha of area burned, and followed by 4501.55 ha of area burned in 2022 with 34 cases of forest fire.

This year, Bhutan recorded 22 cases of forest fire incidents, and the Debsi forest fire recorded the highest number of causalities so far in Bhutan.

Lyonpo Loknath Sharma stated during the 49th meeting with the press that the ministry is still unable to determine the source of forest fires and apprehend those responsible despite multiple investigations and consultations.

The ministries did admit that identifying the cause of the forest fire would be beneficial in enforcing the law and obtaining public support for the inquiry.

The Lyonpo said that the firefighting efforts were hampered by a lack of resources and the presence of only 68 trained firemen.

The government is gearing up to prevent and fight forest fires despite the shortage of resources.

As per the Department of Forest and Park Services, there are three factors leading to forest fires in Bhutan: accidental, intentional, and natural.

Accidental factors include fire escape from unattended agricultural or horticultural debris burning. Agricultural and horticultural debris burning beyond the prescribed timing, Fire ignited from careless disposal of cigarette butt, Children playing with ignition material (matches, lighters, etc.), Fires escaped from an unattended fire due to the efforts of roadside workers, campfires, and picnickers. Fire was initiated from transmission lines, electrical short circuits, faulty transformers, and spread of fire from burning properties (houses, vehicles, machinery, etc.)

Intentional factors leading to forest fires are deliberate burning for pasture development, deliberate burning for lemongrass growth, and deliberate burning to chase away conflicting wild animals.

The third factor leading to forest fire in Bhutan is natural factors that include spark ignition from dry lightning and falling boulders, which are the least likely causes of forest fire in Bhutan.

As per the Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulations of Bhutan, 2017 (FNCRR), any violation shall be liable for a fine and suppression cost ranging. The fines are Nu 500 to Nu 10,000 while the suppression cost is Nu 5,000/- per day.

The Department of Forest and Park Services confirms there are people who have been fined.

Upon enquiring about the precautionary measures that had been implemented by the Department of Forest and Park Services in order to reduce the frequency of forest fires. The Department responded with prevention; Awareness and education are provided through different platforms; roadside campaigns, door-to-door visits, the airing of awareness material on BBS radio and TV channels, the display of messages on boards and banners, social media (Facebook posts), print media, meetings and workshops, and notification through an official letter to the local government.

A participatory approach to fire management involving the formation of groups at the community level was in place.

When asked about the efficacy of the safety precautions in place, the Department stated that there is some improvement in understanding forest fire effects from the record of forest fire incidence numbers, as there is a slight downward trend compared to the 1990s.

Now their focus is to carry out awareness and education on forest fire prevention extensively.

Forest fire cases are frequent and their impacts are noticeable despite the Ministry’s and the Department’s efforts.

According to the Department, the effects of forest fires on the environment and people are as follows. It destroys wild-life habitat (for animals, birds, and insects), damages and destroys the recreational values of the forest, kills wild animals, livestock, birds, and insects, burns minor forest products and affects rural livelihood, threatens the environment by causing air pollution by emitting carbon dioxide, severe fire damages for trees leaving them susceptible to disease and insects.

It kills microorganisms that dwell in the soil, intense Forest fires alter forest soil, cause soil erosion, and damage soil nutrients. It can affect the physical, chemical, and biological quality of streams, rivers, and lakes and poses a risk to human life and damages and destroys assets such as homes, Lhakhangs, and monasteries.

The Department, which has primary responsibility for forest fire management, said it cannot reduce forest fires alone.

The Department requests the public to understand that it is essential that communities share more responsibility for the prevention of fires and protecting Bhutan’s forest ecosystem.

It said protecting our forests is every citizen’s responsibility, and it is therefore absolutely essential that the community has a greater understanding of fire and how to burn it safely. Everyone who lights a fire is responsible for making sure that their fire does not escape and cause a forest fire.

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