Forest fires double but dept. forced to leave areas unguarded
Forest fires more than doubled last year, stretching the Forest Department’s resources as it can only place “fire lines” around selected forests, lacking the ability to protect them all.
At least 156 forest fires were reported islandwide last year, with 80 of them in the Badulla district, the department said. In 2017, there were 70 forest fires half of them in the Badulla district.
Forest fires in Sri Lanka are manmade and, during the dry season, people set fire to them for enjoyment, hunting and to let grass grow for stock in place of the trees that formerly existed, the department’s Conservator of Forests, W.A.C. Weragoda, said.
“The only means to control the frequent occurrence of forest fires is creating awareness among people,” he said.
Last year, 1184 ha of forest was burned out, more than twice the area laid waste by fires in 2017.
Mr. Weragoda said “fire lines” have been put in place in selected forests, creating buffer boundar areas in which excess fallen leaves and other combustible material is regularly cleared to prevent conflagrations spreading.
Asked if fire lines could be opened in other areas he said that due to restricted resources the department was unable to open fire lines in all forests.
“Land grabbing is one of the main reasons people set forests on fire,” environ- mentalist Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform said. Other reasons were a perverted pleasure in arson, hunting, chasing elephants away and preventing snakes from coming into villages.
Blazes regularly occurred in forests around Bibile, Udawalawe, Gal Oya, Nuwara Eliya and Hatton.
“Forest fires are normal phenomena for the people living in those areas – they are not aware of the consequences that could affect the eco-system,” Mr. Chamikara said.
Environmentalist Supun Lahiru Prakash pointed out that forest fires in the hill country cause soil erosion that prevents new trees from growing because essential soil minerals are washed away. Weeds and other alien invasive species then took over, he said.
Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunwardena said although every year people were punished for setting fire to forests, the offence was still being committed on a wide scale.