The Changzamtog-Motithang Forest fire on Sunday exposed how unprepared we are to deal with disasters.
Personally, I felt helpless this Sunday as I watched the forest fire that started about a 100-meter away from Changangkha Lhakhang engulf everything on its way as it was fanned by the unusual strong winds.
Standing at the Changangkha Lhakhang parking area (from where I took the picture on my mobile phone) I heard two people discussing my plight when one said: “The feeling of helplessness that I feel is frightful. I cannot describe it. I don’t know what people in Japan would have felt when the tsunami hit them.”
His friend, with his eyes fixed on the spreading fire only managed to acknowledge in a low voice, “I know. I feel the same way.”
The fire then seemed to spread uphill in all directions.
One man was explaining to the latecomers in the area that the fire had apparently started from a small hut. Nobody actually seemed to know how.
It was about noon and I was also getting worried because I was supposed to attend a Blogyul meet (a meeting of bloggers) at 2:00pm.
Then, I called one of my friends and told him that I may be late for the meeting or may not even make it.
To make matters worse, one part of the fire started spreading towards the upper Motithang area where I live.
I rushed home. When I reached the double turning in Motithang, I saw a man watering the area surrounding his house. He was the only one in the area. There were many others just looking at the smoke which had then intensified. The sun’s rays were turning yellow because of the smoke.
I went inside my house and saw my wife and two kids. I instantly decided to cancel my Blogyul meet. I stayed with them for few minutes but was getting increasingly worried because I could see that the smoke had entirely engulfed the area. The strong winds also showed no signs of calming down.
I didn’t know what to do. Then I decided to check it out myself and went out to the fire site.
I saw that Indian laborers who live in a camp nearby had already packed all their belongings and retreated to lower grounds. I saw two fire brigade trucks trying their best to find a strategic place to station itself.
People had come outside their houses to monitor the fire.
As I saw few people clearing their surroundings of small trees and shrubs, I started feeling guilty of not directly helping them to fight the fire. At least, these people where doing the best they could.
I also noticed that the same concern had made a young girl, who I found out to be a neighbor of mine, had reached the site in the heart of the hill in her bathroom slippers. She was only accompanied by her mobile phone which was buzzing every minute and she was explaining the fire to the callers.
There were also armed personnel from the police, army and the RBG, trying to get all the details they could of the area and, of course, the fire.
Then, suddenly, a lot of people dressed in complete orange uniforms flooded the area. I learnt that they were the Desuups, 125 of them, who had just completed their training in Wangdue had come to fight the fire.
Their presence almost made me feel rescued.
But I wondered how they would fight the wild fire as they were not equipped with anything. They did look determined though.
Getting a kind of an assurance that they will tame the fire (actually I had no other option) I climbed the hill with them towards the fire. It was steep. Then I realized that I should have been a bit more prepared and should have dressed up to the occasion. I was in shorts and slippers and not carrying anything. With a heavy feeling of guilt, I retreated.
Then I saw the education minister dressed in a gho and fighting his heavy sighs but still going uphill. I suggested him not to go but after a small chat he proceeded.
Monitoring the situation, I saw that the volunteers had managed to contain the fire though not completely. I also felt relieved that the fire would not come to the residential areas.
I went home to assure my family that it was okay.
This was my first direct experience with a forest fire. Though I would acknowledge that I did virtually nothing to fight the fire, I learnt several lessons.
It showed how vulnerable we are to disasters.
Some people were also discussing why Bhutan needs to buy helicopters to deal with such situations. The fire brigade trucks were as good as useless in this case.
During such times, even if there is lot of people at the site, all hands are not in to fight the fire. It is difficult to blame these people because they are in a panic mode and don’t really know what to do. Moreover, the first thing on their minds is the safety of their family members.
It is also important to note that in 13 years between 1993 and 2005, 868 forest fires were recorded which affected 128,368 hectares of pristine forest area. We are talking about a huge issue here. If this continue, forest fires could be the single most danger to our constitutional requirement to always maintain a minimum of 60% forest cover for all times to come.
Most of the forest fires occur in dry months between November and May.
Moreover, the causes are mostly human activities. It means that a well-planned and effective awareness programs can definitely help prevent many fires. Some of the common human causes of the fires are burning agricultural debris, children playing with matchstick, careless smokers, cow herders, lemon grass collectors, electricity transmission line short circuits, picnickers etc.
I just wish the government’s efforts to fight disasters intensify and we are able to prevent at least those that are caused because of human carelessness.