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This year, the fires have scorched about 45 acres of Margalla national park this year so far and fires are still raging. In comparison, some 35 fires were reported in 2021 that damaged 189 acres.

Islamabad: Pakistan is grappling with massive forest fires amid record-breaking temperatures and severe heatwave.

One of the worst affected areas was Balochistan where deadly fires have destroyed nearly 40 per cent of the trees in the pine forests of Koh-e-Sulaiman Range, according to local estimates. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province also witnessed multiple wildfires and four members of the same family were killed after a wildfire erupted in the remote area of Ali Jaan Kaparai in KP’s Shangla district this week.

Several forest fires have been reported inside Margalla Hills National Park in Islamabad since last month. “A spate of fires has been reported in the national park since last week in areas where access is extremely difficult. The wildlife board and CDA staff are doing their utmost but they are highly stressed and exhausted now,” Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) Vaqar Zakaria told Gulf News.

Wildlife staff risking lives to put out the fire

Around 90 IWMB staff and 200-300 Capital Development Authority (CDA) are currently engaged in dousing fires. These dedicated and passionate individuals are mostly ill-equipped and less trained but when the alarm sounds they are ready to risk their lives to protect the forests and the local communities. Zakaria called the firefighters unsung heroes. “This is heroic. Going out in 45 degrees blazing sun and putting out the fire is not an easy job. Fortunately, there have been no serious injuries but getting them the fire protective gear is our priority.”

They use simple traditional methods of putting out the fires such as beating the flame with leafy branches,” Zakaria explained. The inaccessible terrain restricts the entry of fire vehicles inside the park while the helicopters are less helpful as it puts out the fire in very small patches, he said. Another method used was fire bombs that momentarily deprive the blaze of oxygen to extinguish the fire but this measure has also proven to be less effective in open spaces.

Better equipment and training

The wildlife board is working with the government department to strengthen the capacity of forest guards and firefighters. The government has approved special “firefighting vehicles that can reach difficult terrains, firefighting gear (uniform, boots, helmets) and equipment for the staff as well as the use of drones to identify fires but also spot people who light fires, IWMB officials told Gulf News.

Strict penalties and laws

On Wednesday, Federal Minister for Climate Change Senator Sherry Rehman said the ministry has identified forest risk areas to ensure strict vigilance and daily monitoring of high-risk areas and directed the provinces to replicate the system. “Drones will also be to monitor areas where the risk of wildfire is higher.” The minister also said that there will be harsher penalties for arson crimes and fire-related offences. She also urged citizens to use social media to bring attention to forest fire issues in their regions.

Javeria Siddique, an Islamabad-based environmentalist journalist, called for the need for building greener cities in the face of climate change. “Forest fires are increasing, the city is heating up faster every year, many neighbourhoods are facing a severe water crisis, yet the city authorities are focused on building new roads and highways by cutting down trees and green areas,” she said, adding that “Islamabad’s 10th Avenue project will destroy about 1000 matured trees and affect hundreds of slum dwellers” she claimed, emphasising that “tree preservation must be integrated with the city development process.”

Islamabad forest fires

This year, the fires have scorched about 45 acres of Margalla national park this year so far and fires are still raging. In comparison, some 35 fires were reported in 2021 that damaged 189 acres. Zakaria says that two major reasons for the sudden surge in forest fires this year are “unusually hot weather with temperatures soaring above 45 degrees Celcius in Islamabad” and the increasing stock of dry grass and wood in the park. Hot, dry weather combined with winds creates perfect conditions for the fire to spread rapidly.

Every year, numerous fires break out in Islamabad’s mountains in the dry summer season, killing precious wildlife species and turning priceless trees into ashes. Animosity, crime concealment and negligence are some of the possible motives for arson. Wildlife guards have reported that disgruntled local individuals who fail to get the seasonal firefighting government jobs are often behind the fire setting. Some also blame the timber mafia for wildfires. Smoking and barbeque inside the park are other causes of concern.

Located in the foothills of the Himalayan Range and spread over 12,600 hectares, Margallah Hills Park is rich in biodiversity and home to diverse animals, birds and reptiles. There are also some 70,000 people living in the villages around the periphery of the park.