Swat’s mountain fires rage for second day

Rumours about government compensation for fire-damaged trees lead to arson fires

Wildfires in the Marghazar mountains of Swat, a tourist hotspot, continued to rage for the second day on Sunday, as teams of Rescue 1122 and the forest department amped up their efforts to extinguish the blaze.

According to a spokesperson of the rescue department, Shafiqa Gul, the fire erupted in the jungles as well as on the mountain range on Saturday. “Immediately after we received the news, a team of 45 firefighters was dispatched to the site,” she said, adding that no loss of life has been reported so far and fire trucks have been positioned near residential areas in the forest to prevent any untoward incident. As of Sunday morning, she continued, 80 percent of the blaze had been extinguished. “Our teams are trying to put out the fire in the remaining areas,” she added.

The Marghazar valley is located at the height of 7,000 feet from sea level. The area’s trees and verdant mountains make for an attractive picnic resort for tourists and locals. Meanwhile, another fire was reported in the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa early Sunday morning. Sub-divisional officer forest, Zahid Hussain, said that the blaze started at around 10am near Dawoot in Chakesar tehsil. Teams of the forest department and Rescue 1122 have reached the area to put out the blaze, he added.

Fires also erupted in Khwazakhela, Timargrah and Lower Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Forestry Environment & Wildlife Department tweeted. The fire in Khawazkhela was brought under control, it added. Hundreds of wildfires have damaged forests spread over thousands of acres in KP for over two weeks. On the other hand, the casualties took the death toll in forest blazes to nine in over a week. Last week, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif passed orders for helicopters to be flown to Swat to help the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) put out the wildfires.

Over 200 wildfires damaged forests and pastures over an area of 14,430 acres in various districts of the province during the past two weeks. According to an investigation by the provincial forestry, environment and wildlife department conducted between May 23 and June 9, of the 210 wildfire incidents, some 55 blazes were started intentionally by local people and 12 were ascribed to dry weather conditions while the cause of another 143 blazes was unknown.

A spokesperson for the department, Latifur Rehman, said that rumours had been circulating in the affected areas that the government would pay compensation for any damage to the forests due to wildfires. Quoting reports received from divisional forest staff members, he said it was rumoured that the government would pay Rs100,000 for a green tree torched in the forest fire, insisting there were no facts in such reports. He added that these rumours led to the 55 fire incidents started by people.

Rehman said that the department had lodged FIRs and at least 21 persons had been arrested in connection with starting the blazes. He added that the rumours were unfounded and the government had not announced any compensation for trees damaged in wildfires. Meanwhile, the investigation stated that the majority of the blazes were ground fires, in dry grasses, with 68 percent in communal and private lands and over 73 percent of the affected area also either communal or private land.

It highlighted that rising temperatures, a key indicator of climate change, evaporate more moisture from the ground, drying out the soil, and making vegetation more flammable. At the same time, winter snow packs were melting about a month earlier, meaning the forests were drier for longer periods of time. As drought conditions continue with rising greenhouse gas emissions, the forestry department expects more wildfires in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, President Dr Arif Alvi Sunday expressed his serious concerns over increasing incidents of forest fires in different parts of the country. He said that such fire incidents were causing huge financial loss to the nation as it deprived those affected of their livelihood, put the life and properties of the inhabitants at high risk, destroyed local fauna and flora, besides worsened the negative effects of the climate change. He advised the authorities concerned to refocus on the prevention of wildfire strategies by strengthening coordination among themselves, President Secretariat Press Wing said in a press release.