Long-term impacts of ‘terrible’ fire season in Pakistan’s mountains

Fires earlier this year destroyed large tracts of forest in Pakistan’s mountains, endangering local communities’ income from chilgoza pine nuts and removing tree cover that can help prevent flash flooding.

Pakistan_Bird
A Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) soars in Borit, Gojal, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. Image: Imran Shah, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

The dry period from the end of April until the advent of the monsoon in July is “fire season” in Pakistan’s forests, which cover the Hindu Kush Himalayas in the country’s north. “There were no good rains this spring and the windy, hot weather led to the fire spreading fast,” says Jan Kharotee, a resident of the remote Sherani district in Balochistan province. Sherani is located in the Sulaiman mountains, part of the Hindu Kush range.

A severe and prolonged heatwave hit India and Pakistan earlier this year, and Pakistan received 62 per cent less rain than normal in March, according to the country’s meteorological department. These tinderbox conditions resulted in wildfires raging across forested regions of Punjab, Kashmir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan for days.

Besides causing a number of casualties, the fires killed trees and wildlife, and could have exacerbated recent flash flooding in some regions. The destruction of medicinal plants, beehives and the nut-bearing chilgoza pine, in particular, has affected local livelihoods.  

“The fires broke out at 2,000-3,000 feet. The villages are below, so no property was damaged. I climbed up to help put out the fire and it was terrible to see people’s livelihoods burning right in front of you,” says Kharotee. “I saw the fire spread from one mature chilgoza tree to another. The resin inside the pine cones helped spread the fire like fuel. Three people died, as the wind direction would change while people were fighting the fires – you had to run fast to avoid the flames.”

Unprecedented number of fires

“This year, there were 51 fire incidents reported to the forest department in Swat, which was unheard of [earlier],” says Muhammad Wasim, a district forest officer. With its lakes and forests, picturesque Swat is a tourist destination in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Crown fires on mountains are the dangerous ones which burn entire trees and are hard to put out.

Muhammad Wasim, district forest officer, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

The fires this spring even broke out in moist temperate forests, which is unusual, Wasim says. Last year, he said, there were only 15-20 incidents in the district and no fires in the moist temperate zone. But in this year’s fire season, more than 5,600 hectares of forest in Swat were damaged by fires.

“There are three forest zones in Swat: chir pine, moist temperate and scrub. There were fires in all three this year. Local villagers earn a good living from gathering medicinal plants and collecting honey in the moist temperate zone. The fire damage has affected their income,” Wasim says.

Due to the accumulation of dry pine needles, large tracts of the forest in Haripur district, also in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, caught fire in June, says Zohaib Hassan, a sub-divisional forest officer in Makhnial. The area had been “closed” as part of the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami afforestation initiative.

“We didn’t allow any grazing inside these areas, to allow for regeneration of the forest. We think the local communities deliberately set fire to the flammable pine needles and cones this dry season,” Hassan tells The Third Pole.

In Hassan’s view, setting fire to the forest is a way of illegally clearing and grabbing land for terraced farming or construction. Under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s laws, land use cannot be changed in community or privately owned forest areas. Hassan has filed a dozen complaints at the local police station against various suspects.

In Pakistan, 66 per cent of the forested area is managed by the forest departments of provincial governments, while the rest is owned privately.

“Most communities living in and around these forests in Pakistan are not exclusively dependent on them for a living; the locals work in nearby towns and cities while their families rear livestock which graze in the forests. In some mountain districts they supplement their income through selling non-timber forest products like honey and medicinal plants,” explains Syed Rizwan Mehboob, a retired officer of the Pakistan Administrative Service.

Wasim and Hassan say that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was lucky this year, in that the fires were all “ground fires” in which mature trees were not badly affected. “Crown fires on mountains are the dangerous ones which burn [entire] trees and are hard to put out,” Wasim says. Crown fires also damage tree roots, which hold soil together and prevent flash flooding.

‘Crown fires’ in Balochistan

The Sherani area of Balochistan suffered extensive damage from forest fires this year. According to a report on the fires by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is not yet available online but which The Third Pole has seen, 1,542 hectares of chilgoza forest was burnt in the Sulaiman Mountains, location of one of the world’s largest such forests.

Sherani has been spared from the massive flash flooding that hit Balochistan province due to the fact that the general elevation of the district is about 1,500 to 3,000 metres above sea level, according to Kharotee.

According to the IUCN, these pines yield an average of 2.8 million kilograms of nuts each year, worth 11.2 billion Pakistani rupees (USD 51 million). The recent IUCN survey of the forest fire damage in Sherani estimated that 900,000 trees were burnt, which will result in a loss of PKR 4 billion (USD 18.6 million) per year for many years to come.

It takes 40 to 50 years for a chilgoza tree to produce nuts for commercial harvest. “One man told me his extended family earned PKR 2.2 million (USD 10,238) per year from selling chilgozas from 100 trees. Now those trees are burnt,” says Kharotee. One kilogram of chilgoza nuts sells for around PKR 3,000 (USD 14) in Zhob, the nearest town, Kharotee says, but this rises to around PKR 11,000 in Lahore or Karachi, and PKR 20,000 when exported.

The IUCN report says the fire was probably started accidentally by nomads camping in the area. It was only extinguished after raging for almost 13 days.

Residents told the IUCN team that food security is their main concern now, as about 50 per cent of the population here is totally dependent on the income from chilgoza forests. “The chilgoza trees will take a long time to regenerate. Our best hope is that the damaged forests may turn green again after 20-25 years,” says Kharotee.

Chilgoza-dependent communities traditionally buy food on credit from shopkeepers and repay the loans after harvesting the pine nuts in August and September, but they will not be able to do so this year. The IUCN proposes that local communities be provided with food for the next six months “to rehabilitate the burnt forests and/or develop an alternate source of income”.

Fires may have worsened Pakistan’s 2022 floods

The IUCN report notes that forest fires result in “the loss of biodiversity, soil and environmental degradation, enhances erosion and flash floods, dries up water springs, [and] causes sedimentation in reservoirs”.

Wasim and Hassan tell The Third Pole they believe that the Billion Tree Tsunami project, which was launched in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2014, prevented large-scale damage from flash flooding in the province this heavy monsoon season. Scientific studies to verify this claim are yet to be undertaken.

Forests cover just 4.8 per cent of Pakistan, and fire is the biggest driver of forest loss in the country: Global Forest Watch estimates that between 2001 and 2021, Pakistan lost 5,460 hectares of tree cover due to fires and 4,290 hectares from all other drivers.

ZB Mirza, a well-known naturalist based in Pakistan, stresses the importance of forests in flood resilience. He tells The Third Pole that more than a century of timber extraction in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region has denuded Pakistan’s mountains and exacerbated the impact of floods.

“We have thoughtlessly caused erosion of the fertile topsoil of all our mountains… Uprooting of any vegetation makes the topsoil loose, which erodes with rainfall. Water flow becomes very fast on the mountain slopes which have sparse forest cover or no forest at all, as is common in the mountains of Balochistan (where much of the current flooding has taken place).”

Prevention is key

Besides chilgoza, livestock rearing (mainly goats and sheep) is the main source of income for these communities, but the IUCN recommends that the forests should be closed to grazing to allow them to regenerate, and that nurseries should be established in the area, to create new plantations. The government should also recruit community guards to protect the forest, it recommends.

The study highlights the need to enhance the capacity of the local forest department and communities to combat fires in future. A recent scientific study found that the intensity and frequency of heatwaves like those which caused forest fires in India and Pakistan this summer are likely to increase in the coming years. According to Vaqar Zakaria, a member of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board, all forest departments should focus on implementing plans to minimise fires.

“Fire prevention in forested areas is the key and it can be done with better patrolling and community engagement.”

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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