Fire Engulfs 750 Acres In Ohiya-Pattipola Reserve
- Was it set on fire or did it catch fire?
By Niranjala Ariyawansha
Over 750 acres of forest was destroyed by a fire that engulfed the reserve at Ohia-Pattipola-Idalgashinna on August 2.
It took over 500 Army personnel, three choppers from the Air Force, the Government Agent Nuwara Eliya, Forest Department officials from Badulla and Nuwara Eliya, Disaster Management Officials from these two areas, the Staion Master and staff of Ohiya, Police and over 600 people of the area three days to douse this fire, much to the relief of all. By 3am on August 5, the last embers were put out.
750 acres were destroyed out of 3,422 belonging to this reserve constituting nearly 1/5th of this forest.It combines the boundaries of Ohiya-Pattipola-Idalgashinna. The picturesque Horton Plains is also situated within this forest reserve. The fear was that this fire would reach Horton Plains and destroy the immediate environment of this beautiful place of nature. Those involved in fighting the fire were aware of the necessity to douse it before it reached the plains. Horton Plains boasts of a natural habitat for fauna and flora and other wild life not forgetting the rich diversity of plant life.
Though the fire was doused before it reached the Plains, 750 acres were completely destroyed in this reserve. That in itself is no small matter. When would the people realize that the water we receive in our habitats originate from the water flowing from the central hills surrounded by forests and wild life which is a gift nature has provided? Was this fire set by a person or persons who did not understand the importance of a reserve? Or was it an accident? What was the real reason for the fire?
The Divisional Secretary Nuwara Eliya D. P. G. Kumarasiri speaking to The Sunday Leader, said that, “There are no natural fires that occur in Sri Lanka. This was started by man. There are several reasons for such forest fires in this country. Local tourists are irresponsible when using fire to cook their meals whilst on tour. One spark is enough to set a raging fire. Cigarette butts are another. There are others who get a vicarious pleasure by setting fire to such places. More than all of the above, people from the up country believe a theory that if forests are set on fire during drought, rains will soon follow. The dangers of these hang ups could be seen from this fire”. He added, “We are unable to pinpoint the reasons that led to this fire. But if anyone did so expecting rains to follow they are sadly mistaken. This will delay rains”.
The first sighting of this fire was by a Pattipola railway line Inspector, who did not wish to be named, around 5pm on August 2. “As I saw the fire I alerted higher officials. By this time the fire was about a mile long between the 141st and 142nd mile posts going towards Badulla from Pattipola. The fire was almost reaching the rail lines. Our cadre should be around 100 but at present we have only 12 workmen. It was these men who labored to prevent the fire reaching the rail lines. I have never seen a fire as strong as this in my life,” he said. He was grateful to all those who volunteered to douse this fire without any reward. He said that all of them were concerned with the resultant harm it would cause to the environment.
However those who rallied around to help douse the fire had varying theories. Some in authority had not heard of the fire till it was a day old. The Assistant Director of Disaster Management for the Badulla District K. H. L. Udaya Kumara had heard of the fire only on August 3 at 9pm.
“As I heard of the fire, I informed the Nuwara Eliya Police. Whilst travelling to the site with two Police officers I informed all concerned; the Colombo Disaster Management office, the Army Camp at Diyatalawa, the Air Force, the Divisional Secretaries of Welimada and Nuwara Eliya and the Forest Department officials at Badulla and Nuwara Eliya. We had to traverse over 65 kilometres”. By the time Udaya Kumara arrived at the scene the Army, Railway Department officials and other officers were at the forest reserve. Though the fire was doused early on Friday, a few hours later it raged once more by the rail lines of Ohia-Idalgashinna.
Priyantha Senaratne, Forest Range Officer for Badulla recouning his experience said, “There have been no rains in months in these areas. All the leaves that fall off the trees are dry due to the drought. They are piled up all over. During September and thereabouts strong winds also prevail. With all these conditions the fire raged incessantly. It was very difficult to put it out. There was no water. If not for the Army this fire would have engulfed Horton Plains.”
He explained that this forest was full of pinus and eucalyptus plants. The euclyptus leaves have an oily texture. Together with the excess heat and wind this forms a very formidable combination for a fire to rage.
The Divisional Secretary of Nuwara Eliya said that this reserve is a commercial one and not a natural forest reserve. Since the plantations are confined to pinus and eucalyptus there is no bio diversity nor water retention advantages in this preserve. However the damage to the environment is great when even a commercial reserve catches fire.
“Since the pinus and eucalyptus plants contain oily resins they catch fire easily. The timber from these trees is used for railway tracks and electrical posts. Other than that there is no advantage from this forest towards the enhancement of the environment. These trees suck in a lot of water. Since there is no undergrowth between these trees, soil erosion takes place. As there is no useful purpose in this forest for the people, when a fire erupts they do not bother to help in dousing the flames”.
However Badulla Range Forest Officer Priyantha Senaratne disagreed that the villagers did not come forward to help douse the fire.
“The Nuwara Eliya Divisional Secretary simply stood on the road and gave orders. We are the people who stepped into the forest. I am aware that people from Wangiyakumbura and Bogahakumbura came to help. Some trudged over seven to eight kilometres to help. They felt that they got their water from this reserve and therefore they wanted to help. And the Nuwara Eliya Divisional Secretary is not an environmentalist”.
He also felt though this was a commercial reserve it was beneficial to the environment given the fact that it had been there for over 40 to 50 years. He also added that the water flowing into the Uva region was being depleted because people in the vicinity of the streams had started cultivations along the banks.
Udaya Kumara too rejected the charge that the people did not help in dousing the fire. For example ‘Gamini’ who runs a tea boutique in front of the Ohiya railway station lent his phone for co-ordinating activities. He simply wanted to preserve his immediate environment.
The Assistant Director of the Ministry of Disaster Management Pradeep Kodippily said that from the moment the information came through all possible action was set in place.
“By now the fire has abated completely. The Army, Air Force and the employees of the Railways helped a lot. This was a difficult job to complete. The people must be aware of the environment. There must be a programme to educate them,” he said.
He further added that since January 2012 there had been 46 fires in the Badulla District. Between July 1 and August 8 there had been 32 fires. Between January 1 and August 8, there had been over 90 fires in the country.
Due to these fires in the Nuwara Eliya District only 18 percent of the forest remained intact. This was said by D. H. S. Kumarasiri of the Nuwara Eliya Forest Range Officer. He had only four vehicles to handle the entire District but even under severe conditions they were doing their job to preserve the environment. The major portion of destruction due to this fire was in the Badulla District and only two to three hectares were damaged in the Nuwara Eliya District, according to Kumarasiri.
The brunt of the fire fighting was done under the guidance of Brigadier Deepthi Jayatilleke of the 112 Battalion of the Army. Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasuriya the military spokesman said, “It was not easy to douse this fire. There was no water. The Air Force helped us with three helicopters. The water was transported from Lake Gregory in Nuwara Eliya. When we transported around 900 litres of water half of it was wasted. By then the fire was raging again. At times it was 20 feet high. It was an uphill task”. He added that they cut fire belts around the fire to contain it. This was done by digging belts 50 metres deep surrounding the fire.
A fire belt is built by digging a trench of a few metres surrounding the fire and cleaning it completely of any leaves, debris and maintaining a dry barren strip. The fire doesn’t spread beyond this.
The Pattipola Railway Lines Inspector observed that the fire belts had to be very wide. The eucalyptus tree has a bark which has thin wraps around it. When the tree catches fire the wraps split and are thrown across a long way. Therefore he felt the fire belts had to be very wide or when splinters get thrown another fire would erupt necessitating more belts.
“This is a serious offence. Human kind has to preserve the environment to survive. There are many Acts under which people can be charged. But it would depend if they are recorded as reserves,” Jagath Gunawardene, the prominent environmental lawyer said.
The Divisional Secretary, Nuwara Eliya and the Forest Ranger from Badulla were of the view that educating the people of the importance of the environment was better than catching those who set fire to the forests.
The Pattipola Railway Line Inspector said, “If someone did this on purpose it is beyond belief. I saw the devastation before my eyes. Such a big fire! It was like watching a movie. If one was to travel by train up country one could see the destruction up to a mile around the 141st mile post area. It is just a black shroud”.
The fire that raged for over three days in Ohiya-Pattipola rising to over 20 feet destroyed everything in its wake. This plain which normally is covered by thick white mist at times making it impossible to even see beyond a few feet was again spread with a white cloud. But this time it was with the smoke emanating from the fire and not the beautiful mist.