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Forest is seen on fire near the northern hill town of Shimla in Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Massive wildfires that have killed at least seven people in recent weeks were burning through pine forests in the mountains of northern India on Monday, including parts of two tiger reserves. Image Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The forest fires in Uttarakhand, which have devastated acres of green cover in the hills, may have a lasting impact on the Himalayan glaciers, causing them to melt faster and leading to floods, fear experts.

Black carbon from the smoke and ash is currently covering the Himalayan glaciers, which are the lifeline of major rivers flowing through northern India. The water in the rivers could also be polluted by harmful chemicals, experts believe.

The forest fires, still active at about 40 places in Uttarakhand, have already resulted in a jump of 0.2 degrees Celsius in temperatures across northern India which can have a detrimental effect on the monsoons.

“Glaciers normally act as mirrors reflecting most of the light and heat. This is known as ‘albedo’. But when black carbon gets deposited on them, it results in their absorbing all the light and heat which eventually results in their meltdown. It is something very serious and needs to be looked into as it can cause flooding,” scientist Kirit Kumar from Govind Ballabh Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, Uttarakhand, told Gulf News.

Around 10,000 people in the state, including residents, are involved in fighting the circles of fire. Five people have died till now. A police constable who was part of a firefighting team was killed on Monday after being hit by a boulder hurtling down the hill.

The fires, which have burnt for over two months, have also caused massive damage to the fauna in Uttarakhand.

“The larger animals such as tigers, elephants, deer and wild boars can manage to steer clear of fires and make their way to safer grounds. But the real loss is to birds which lay eggs on shrubs and their young ones who cannot escape the fire,” Uttarakhand Chief Forest Conservator Jai Raj told Gulf News.

Satellite pictures now show 70 per cent of the fires have been doused. The state hopes for some relief after the weather department predicted rain in the next 24 to 48 hours.

Confirming that the fires have been brought under control, Union Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar said, “there were fires at more than 1,200 places earlier but today it is in less than 60 places.”

Home Minister Rajnath Singh also said the government has been able to bring the fires under control.

“The situation is now totally under control after three National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams were pressed into service along with the Airforce with MI-17 helicopters. Some expert teams have also been sent to the area,” Singh told reporters here.

Meanwhile, the Uttarakhand High Court has taken suo motu cognisance of the forest fires and a petition has been filed. The Court has asked the central and the state governments to supply details of the total area affected by the forest fires, the number of deaths and the number of trees damaged.

The court has also asked what the state has done to implement the guidelines laid down by the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The court has asked the Centre and the state government to file their replies by May nine.

In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh also, hundreds of people stayed up all Monday night in the popular hill resort of Kasauli to stop the fires from destroying their homes. Students at the Pinegrove Boarding School were evacuated when the fire touched the boundary walls and left the entire area full of thick smoke. Panic gripped Lawrence school, Sanawar, also as fires raging in adjoining forests advanced towards the school.

There was concern in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Parliament) over the vast forest fires in Uttarkhand and Himachal Pradesh and the huge damage caused to the flora and fauna in the disaster.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former chief minister of Uttarakhand Ramesh Pokhriyal told the House that the blaze has affected the tiger habitat and destroyed a large number of medicinal herbs and plants. He said the fire has been exacerbated by the dry weather.