Shimla, May 2: Summer fires in Himachal Pradesh's grasslands and forests have so far led to 378 incidents, mainly in the low hills, and destroyed flora and fauna in over 3,000 hectares, a senior forest official said on Monday.
"The sudden rise in mercury and the prolonged dry spell are mainly the reasons for these forest fires. Most of the fire-related cases are from the Shivalik ranges in Bilaspur, Hamirpur, Kangra, Solan and Sirmaur districts and a majority of them are ground fires," principal chief forest conservator S.P. Vasudeva told IANS.
Records of the forest department said 22 percent or 8,267 sq.km of the total forest area in the state is fire-prone. A majority of the fires were reported from the pine forests since during summer, the trees shed pine needles that are highly inflammable due to the rich content of turpentine oil.
The pine forest is found up to an altitude of 5,500 feet.
A total of 671 fire incidents had destroyed 5,733 hectares of forests in 2015-16. The worst year was 2012-13 when 1,798 fire incidents were reported and forest wealth on 20,763 hectares was destroyed.
Billowing smoke from the hills of Shimla, Kasauli, Chail, Dharampur and Nahan towns have become common these days.
"A huge track of forest in the Tara Devi hills (overlooking Shimla town) was ravaged in the past two days," local villager Ramesh Chand told IANS.
He said there was also an extensive damage to the wildlife.
Forest officials said most forest fire incidents were 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.
Vasudeva said self-help groups mainly comprising villagers have been formed in the fire-prone districts.
"Besides self-help groups, more than 3,000 fire watchers have been deployed to check fire incidents," he said.
The leave of forest employees has been cancelled till June 30, the peak summer season.
He said the locals are also involved by the forest department to collect pine needles, a major cause of forest fires.
The villagers are collecting the needles and selling them to cement companies at Rs.1.65 per kg.
They are using the pine needles with high calorific value along with charcoal in its kilns.
"We will try to negotiate with the cement firms to make the collection of pine needles lucrative by increasing their procurement rates to Rs.2 per kg," he said, adding the harvesting of needles is greatly helping checking forest fires.
According to official records, 66 percent of the Himalayan state is under forest cover.
The lush green valleys and snow-capped mountains of the state are home to 36 percent of India's species of birds. Of the 1,228 species reported in India, 447 have been recorded in Himachal.
Similarly, 77 species of mammals have been recorded by the Himachal State Council for Science, Technology and Environment.