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Long-term impacts of ‘terrible’ fire season in Pakistan’s mountains | News | Eco-Enterprise

The dry period from the end of April until the arrival of the monsoon in July is “fire season” in the forests of Pakistan, which cover the Hindu Kush Himalayas in the north of the country. “There have not been good rains this spring and the windy and hot weather has caused the fire to spread rapidly,” said Jan Kharotee, a resident of remote Sherani district in Balochistan province. Sherani is located in the Sulaiman Mountains, part of the Hindu Kush range.

A serious and prolonged Heat wave hit India and Pakistan earlier this year, and Pakistan received 62% less rain than normal in March, according to the country. meteorological service. These powder keg conditions led to wildfires that raged through forested regions of Punjab, Kashmir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan for days.

In addition to causing a number of victims, the fires killed trees and wildlife and could have exacerbated recent flash floods in some areas. The destruction of medicinal plants, beehives and the chilgoza pine nut, in particular, has affected local livelihoods.

“The fires started at 2,000-3,000ft. The villages are below so no property was damaged. I climbed to help put out the fire and it was terrible to see people’s livelihoods burning right in front of you,” says Kharotee. “I saw the fire spread from one mature Chilgoza tree to another. The resin inside the pine cones helped spread the fire like fuel. Three people died, as the wind direction changed as people fought the fires – you had to run fast to avoid the flames.

Unprecedented number of fires

“This year, 51 fires were reported to the Swat Forest Department, which was unheard of. [earlier]says Muhammad Wasim, a district forest officer. With its lakes and forests, the picturesque Swat is a tourist destination in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Crown fires on mountains are the most dangerous which burn entire trees and are difficult to extinguish.

Muhammad Wasim, District Forest Officer, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

This spring’s fires even broke out in temperate rainforests, which is unusual, Wasim said. Last year, he said, there were only 15 to 20 incidents in the district and no fires in the humid temperate zone. But during this year’s fire season, more than 5,600 hectares of forest in Swat were damaged by fire.

“There are three forest zones in Swat: chir pine, humid temperate and scrub. There have been fires in all three this year. The local villagers earn a good living by gathering medicinal plants and harvesting honey in the humid temperate zone. The fire damage has affected their income,” Wasim explains.

Due to the accumulation of dry pine needles, large tracts of forest in Haripur district, also in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, caught fire in June, says Zohaib Hassan, a forest officer in Makhnial sub-division. . The area had been “closed” as part of the Tsunami of ten billion trees afforestation initiative.

“We have not allowed any grazing inside these areas, to allow the regeneration of the forest. We believe local communities deliberately set fire to flammable pine needles and cones in this dry season,” Hassan told The Third Pole.

According to Hassan, setting fire to the forest is a way of illegally clearing and grabbing land for terraced farming or construction. Under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa laws, land use cannot be changed in community or private forest areas. Hassan filed a dozen complaints at the local police station against various suspects.

In Pakistan, 66 percent of the forest area is managed by provincial government forestry departments, while the rest is owned by the private sector.

“Most of the communities living in and around these forests in Pakistan are not exclusively dependent on them for their livelihood; locals work in nearby towns while their families raise cattle that graze in the forests. In some mountainous districts, they supplement their income by selling non-timber forest products like honey and medicinal plants,” says Syed Rizwan Mehboob, a retired officer from Pakistan’s Administrative Service.

Wasim and Hassan say Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was lucky this year, in that the fires were all “ground fires” in which mature trees were not badly affected. “The crown fires on the mountains are the most dangerous that burn [entire] trees and are difficult to extinguish,” Wasim says. Crown fires also damage tree roots, which hold the soil together and prevent flash flooding.

“Corona fires” in Balochistan

The Sherani region in Baluchistan has suffered extensive damage from forest fires this year. According to an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) fire report, which is not yet available online but seen by The Third Pole, 1,542 hectares of chilgoza forest have been burned in the Sulaiman Mountains, location of one of the largest forests in the world.

Sherani was spared from the massive flash floods that hit Balochistan province due to the district’s general elevation being around 1,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level, according to Kharotee..

According to the IUCN, these pines produce an average of 2.8 million kilograms of nuts each year, worth 11.2 billion Pakistani rupees ($51 million). The recent IUCN survey of forest fire damage in Sherani estimated that 900,000 trees were burned, which will result in a loss of PKR 4 billion (USD 18.6 million) per year for many years coming.

It takes 40 to 50 years for a Chilgoza tree to produce nuts for commercial harvest. “A man told me that his extended family earns PKR 2.2 million (USD 10,238) a year selling chilgozas from 100 trees. Now those trees are burned,” says Kharotee. A kilogram of chilgoza nuts sells for around PKR 3,000 (USD 14) in Zhob, the nearest town, Kharotee says, but that rises to around PKR 11,000 in Lahore or Karachi, and PKR 20,000 for export.

The IUCN report says the fire was likely started accidentally by nomads camping in the area. It only died out after raging for nearly 13 days.

Locals told the IUCN team that food security is now their main concern, as around 50% of the population here is totally dependent on income from the chilgoza forests. “Chilgoza trees will take a long time to regenerate. Our best hope is that the damaged forests will come back to life after 20 to 25 years,” says Kharotee.

Dependent communities in Chilgoza traditionally buy food on credit from traders and repay loans after harvesting pine nuts in August and September, but they will not be able to do so this year. IUCN proposes that local communities receive food for the next six months “to rehabilitate burned forests and/or develop an alternative source of income”.

Fires may have worsened Pakistan’s 2022 floods

The IUCN report notes that wildfires lead to “biodiversity loss, land and environmental degradation, increased erosion and flash flooding, drying up of water sources, [and] causes sedimentation in reservoirs”.

Wasim and Hassan tell The Third Pole that they believe the Billion Tree Tsunami project, which was launched in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2014, prevented large-scale damage from flash floods in the province in this abundant monsoon season. Scientific studies to verify this claim have yet to be undertaken.

Forest cover only 4.8% of Pakistan, and fire is the main driver of forest loss in the country: Global Forest Watch estimates that between 2001 and 2021, Pakistan lost 5,460 hectares of tree cover to fires and 4,290 hectares to all other factors.

ZB Mirza, a well-known naturalist based in Pakistan, emphasizes the importance of forests in flood resilience. He tells The Third Pole that more than a century of timber extraction in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region has denuded Pakistan’s mountains and exacerbated the impact of flooding.

“We have recklessly caused the erosion of the fertile topsoil of all our mountains… The uprooting of all vegetation makes the topsoil loose, which erodes with rainfall. Water flow becomes very rapid on mountain slopes that have sparse forest cover or no forest at all, as is common in the mountains of Balochistan (where much of the current flooding has occurred).

Prevention is key

Besides the chilgoza, livestock (mainly goats and sheep) is the main source of income for these communities, but the IUCN recommends that the forests be closed to grazing to allow them to regenerate, and that nurseries be established in the area, to create new plantations. The government should also hire community rangers to protect the forest, he recommends.

The study underscores the need to build the capacity of the local Forest Service and communities to fight fires in the future. A recent scientific study found that the intensity and frequency of heat waves like those that sparked wildfires in India and Pakistan this summer are likely to increase in coming years. According to Vaqar Zakaria, a member of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Council, all forestry departments should focus on implementing plans to minimize fires.

“Preventing fires in forest areas is key and this can be done with better patrols and community engagement.”

This story was published with permission from The third pole.