As forests burn in Karnataka, political indifference sparks anger

One forest officer has died and two have been seriously injured while trying to put out the flames

Karnataka forest fire
Unlike in Goa, the Karnataka government has not requested the Indian Air Force to join the fire-fighting operations | Image courtesy: Twitter

A string of forest fires, both minor and major, are raging in several parts of the Western Ghats in Karnataka, posing a serious danger to forest wealth as well as wildlife.

While the Forest Department says it is doing what it can to extinguish the blaze, there is palpable anger among the staff over the lack of a more serious response by the government and the growing menace of eco-terrorists.

Already, one forest officer has died and two have been seriously injured while trying to put out the leaping flames.

Environmentalists too are crying foul, saying the government has not taken the incidents seriously. Not one high-level meeting has been reportedly called to save the forests from recurring fire incidents.


And unlike in Goa, the Karnataka government has not requested the Indian Air Force to join the fire-fighting operations.

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The worst hit area is Chikkamagaluru, around 250 km from Bengaluru and a part of a famed elephant corridor.

The fire is posing a serious threat to elephants, which would be forced to move out of their traditional homes. Thousands of birds of different varieties, animals, and flora are also in danger.

Officials say many forest fires are caused by natural causes, including lightning and extreme conditions of drought or heat. But mostly human greed and mischief are at play.

The winds in the region only spread the fires further.

Sources in the Forest Cell of the Karnataka Police say there is a possibility of involvement of the timber mafia in the forest fires.

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Summer dangers

“Now that summer has started, it is easy to set the forest on fire. The mafia does not bother about flora and fauna. If trees are burnt, the Forest Department may sell them for the timber,” a police official said.

“We are interrogating a few persons in this regard,” the officer added.

Such incidents are occurring repeatedly on a large scale in Chikkamagaluru and Kodagu and also South Kanara districts.

Chikkamagaluru, a hilly region, has already lost a huge amount of plant wealth.

Employee dies

Recently, Forest Department employee Sundaresh died of serious burn injuries after he went to a burning area near Kadumane Estate. Forest officers Manjunath and forest observer Tungesh were seriously injured in the incident.

Later, other officials struggled to evacuate the injured from the area.

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In one incident, two-wheelers of Forest Department personnel who went to extinguish a fire in the Sindigere reserve forest in Chikkamagaluru caught fire and were destroyed.

A fire in the Charmadi Ghat region in Chikkamagaluru has engulfed all the hilltops, ravaging flora and fauna. Forest officials say it is a struggle to reach the spot of destruction.

Hundreds of acres of forest have been gutted near Bidirutala in Charmadi Ghat, officials said. A fire is burning on the side of a road passing through the forest and is spreading rapidly due to the dry grass and leaves.

More fires

The menacing flames have also been reported from Aladangady Urjalubetta and Didupe in the Kudremukh National Park.

Similar fires rage in the Tavur and Thannimani hills of Kodagu’s Bhagamandala forest range.

Nearly 100 hectares of a forest turned to ashes near Kulagi range in the Kali Tiger Reserve in Uttara Kannada district last month. The fire is said to be “manmade”.

While officials insist that 90 per cent of the fire has been doused, not everyone agrees. Forest officials admit they are facing immense difficulties battling the fires in hilly areas.

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Police have arrested a person who allegedly set fire five days ago to the Basavankote forest area near Balehonnur, gutting hundreds of acres thick with trees. He has been identified as Raghu of Saragodu village.

Two other accused, Kumar and Venkatesh, are absconding. Raghu has reportedly admitted to committing the arson.

Lack of infrastructure

There is no infrastructure in the Forest Department to deal with major fires. This is the key reason why the destruction is so widespread.

There is a huge shortage of staff in the Forest Department, which has 4,520 employees on its rolls now.

More than 720 posts of Forest guards and 400 Forest Observers are vacant. Posts of 60 IFS officers, 120 sub-zonal forest officers, 70 zonal forest officers, and more than 100 driver posts are also vacant.

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Shashidhar Shetty, Secretary of the National Environment Association, says army helicopters can play a vital role in dousing forest fires, particularly in hilly areas.

Drone needed

The Forest Department also needs a drone to conduct survey at least once a week in the Western Ghats from January to May to detect fires early.

Wildlife activist Joseph Hoover said that while Goa hires choppers to battle forest fires, the helicopters in Karnataka are now being used for election campaign.

“For three days, shola grasslands have been burning. Our foresters are risking their lives to save our precious forests, wildlife, and biodiversity. But our netas are busy campaigning for votes,” Hoover said.