By Vrinda Nagar, WWF-India

When a forest fire first begins to take over, it may sound like rainfall. The pitter-patter, crackling sound of rain, however, soon fades away as the first few sparks of orange fly up to greet the onlooker, to then turn into a full blaring, burning red; ready to consume everything – man, animal, trees – that comes its way. The sounds and sights of the fire, however, pale in comparison to the intense, searing heat that can suffocate the life out of the biggest predator of the forest.

In the way of fire

Forest Department workers attempt to put out a forest fire in the Terai Arc Landscape, India.

© Ruchir Sharma

As old as the forests themselves, forest fires in India destroy about 3.73 million hectares of forest area annually. This is about 25 times the area of Delhi! If not controlled in time and effectively, these numbers and those of the people and species affected could go much higher.

Satellite image of fire incidences on the morning of April 23, 2017 around Navegaon Sanctuary. Around 5% of forests are destroyed annually in India due to forest fires.

But who monitors and puts out these fires? And what are the risks one takes trying to control them? On 5 April, 2017 Raj Kumar Gaval, a regular fire watcher and temporary staff of the Maharashtra Forest Department, lost his life trying to control a fire that was rapidly consuming the forest in Navegaon Sanctuary, a part of Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. Equipped with a leaf blower machine, he, accompanied by other forest staff, fought the fire for hours. However, the extremely hot flames that were quickly approaching him forced him to take shelter on a tree top, where the flames from below gave him serious injuries. He was rescued from the forest and rushed to the Civil Hospital Bhandara, where, unfortunately, he succumbed to his injuries.

Raj Kumar Gaval, braveheart
who lost his life fighting a forest fire

Survived by a wife and two daughters, one aged three and the other aged two, Raj Kumar died at the young age of 30, losing his life to protect the forests that are home to endangered species such as tigers, leopards, wild dogs and spotted deer, among many others. Forest guards and workers, such as Raj Kumar, everywhere in the country, find themselves under difficult circumstances as they work tirelessly and, oftentimes, without a break, to protect forests, and the communities and wildlife species dependent on them.

To provide financial assistance to Raj Kumar’s family, the Maharashtra Forest Department has allocated funds for the deceased’s family. WWF-India too, under a joint initiative with ICICI Prudential, which provides ex-gratia to the country’s frontline forest staff, is working towards extending support of Rs. 3 lakh to the family of Raj Kumar, the only earning member of the family. 

As discussions and debates take place around the world on whether we will be able to control rising global temperatures, protect our fast degrading natural heritage and have the means to secure the world’s forests, it is heartening to see that there are people who fight till the end for what they believe in and refuse to acknowledge limits. Expressing our deep condolence to the family of Raj Kumar, a real hero who lost his life for the forests precious to all of us, we salute the spirit of heroism and offer gratitude for the unconditional service and sacrifice of Raj Kumar.

Loss of bio-diversity, loss of wildlife habitat, global warming, soil erosion, damage to water and other natural resources, are few consequences of wildland fires in India.

© WWF-India

With inputs from Soumen Dey - Team Leader, Satpuda Maikal Landscape, WWF-India

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