For­est fires dou­ble but dept. forced to leave ar­eas un­guarded

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS - By Shaadya Is­mail

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.

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