During the last week all eyes in Bhutan were focussed on the visit of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the country. Ignored in the backdrop of the royal visit were a series of forest fires across Bhutan. Four hours from Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, in the Athang gewog (group of villages) located in Wangdue district, 250 men spent a gruelling week to battle a fire that has not yet been brought under control.
The fire started around 3 pm on April 9 has been devastating the pristine forests and grassland of Rukha and Samthang in the Athang gewog, both of which fall within the confines of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. The park, covering 1,300 square kilometres, is the second largest protected area in Bhutan, and a key sanctuary for tigers and other big fauna in the country. The fire has now lasted for more than seven days.
Khandu Dorji, a local leader from Athang, told thethirdpole.net said that the fight to contain the fore was very challenging. Without even a small walking path in the area, the firefighters had to cross Punatsangchu River and climb up the cliffs, using the remains of burnt grassland and plants as handholds. Since it was impossible to carry water up the mountain, they used tree branches and whatever was available, like sand, to build fire breaks.
Despite the heroic efforts, the fire continued to rage and spread. In the evening strong winds help advance the fire, causing more difficulty for the firefighters. The only luck they had was some rain on the night of 15 April. Although most forest fires are handled locally, the weeklong fire meant that Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji, the minister of agriculture and forests, along with other ministry officials visited Athang, despite the occasion of the Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s visit.
Park ranger, Pema Thinley, told thethirdpole.net that since the fire was burning on the mountaintop and in rugged terrain, it becomes extremely dangerous to the firefighters. Therefore they start at 5am in the morning. Thinley said the park is yet to measure the area destroyed by the fire, as well as its cause, but it is already clear that this is the biggest forest fire that has occurred in the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. Wagdue district has already recorded more than seven forest fires this year.
Records with the department of forest showed that forest fire incidences are common in areas with conifer forest cover. This includes the districts of Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Wangduephodrang, Punakha, Mongar, Trashigang and Lhuentse in Bhutan.
More than 216 forest fires were reported within past five winters, burning 96,044 acres, according to the ministry and key forest officials. The highest number of forest fires occurred in 2013-2014, during which 66 forest fires damaged 46,694 acres of forest cover. More than 20,000 acres of forest cover have been destroyed over this last winter.
More than three quarters of Bhutan’s land is under forest cover, making it one of the most forested countries in the world, but with increasingly odd weather patterns, this treasure now seems under threat.