Sheroes to the rescue: Four villagers from Odisha earn plaudits for dousing fire in Sal forests
Without waiting for the forest officials to arrive at the blaze site, two minor girls aged 13 and 16 and two women aged 23 and 43 took it upon themselves to extinguish the forest fire which was in close proximity to their village. Read more about the brave act which coincidentally unfolded on a day dedicated to women empowerment across the world.
Pradeep Mishra 6 April 2022 1:02 PM GMT
Semiliguda, Koraput (Odisha)
On March 8, while returning from their office in Odisha's Koraput after participating in an event to mark the International Women's Day, functionaries of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) witnessed a blaze on one of hills along the road.
The NGO team rushed to inform the rural residents of the Doliambo village which lies in the Semiliguda panchayat (village council) — situated at a distance of about 25 kilometres from the Koraput district headquarters.
Upon entering the village, the NGO workers came across a bunch of young men who took little interest in making any attempt to douse the forest fire which was blazing merely 50 metres away from their village.
"The boys escaped the situation by stating that they did not know the local forest officials, were occupied with errands and had no time to douse the forest blaze. However, minutes later, we found some women and girls who immediately stood up to do something about the threat looming on their village," Trinath Guntha, field associate of the Foundation For Ecological Security — an Anand-based NGO told Gaon Connection.
Sandhya, a 43-year-old resident of the village was the first to jump into action.
"When we informed her about the fire on the hill, she stood up anxiously and ran to ask her neighbours to help. Minutes later, she arrived with three people — her 23-year-old neighbour Jharna and the two minor sisters Eeli and Mili who were aged 16 and 13 respectively," Guntha said.
The NGO officials and the four villagers rushed to the site of the blaze which had engulfed the Sal forest on the hill.
"We used green, leafy branches to douse the fire and gradually reduced the intensity of the fire which was about to take the village in its grasp. About an hour later, the fire was controlled and we breathed respite," Guntha remembered.
'Forest like my mother, it's upon me to save it'
When asked about her motivation behind risking her life to douse the flames which posed a danger to her village, Sandhya stated that she couldn't imagine her life without the forest.
Unaware of the significance of the day (International Women's Day) on which she carried out the act of bravery, Sandhya told the NGO workers, "This forest is like my mother. Our livelihoods depend on it. If my mother caught fire some day, you think I'll wait for people to come and help?"
Without having any prior experience of firefighting, the four villagers risked their lives to protect the forest. In the process, they also sustained bruises and burns but continued to do their best nevertheless.
Forest officials grateful
When Gaon Connection contacted the forest range officer of the Semiligudaforest area, he informed that community participation is an integral part of the Odisha State Forest Department's collective efforts to check the incidence of forest fires which are prevalent during the summer months.
"We encourage the local inhabitants to participate in dousing forest fires as they are the first responders to such incidents. I got to know about the fire in the Sal forests in Semiliguda area on March 8 and have informed the higher authorities about the brave efforts of the four villagers who extinguished the fire on their own," Rohit Kumar, Koraput-based forest range officer told Gaon Connection.
The official also informed that the forest department also awards villages that ensure that fire incidents do not occur in the nearby forests.
"We set up community groups called Vanya Suraksha Samiti (forest protection committee) and train them about the primary measures needed to extinguish the fire in the forest areas. Without community-driven action, it is next to impossible to check forest fires as by the time the forest officials reach the site, it is already too late to control it. The efforts of the villagers are paramount to protect forests from fires," he said.
"We also allot financial prizes to encourage these villagers to participate in checking forest fires. The best performing samiti is given a cash prize of five thousand rupees," the official informed Gaon Connection.
Forest fires and community action
According to the official data provided by the Forest Survey of India, at least 1,026 cases of 'large fire events' were reported in the two days — on March 30 and March 31.
Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of fire incidents in the given period with 200 and 289 cases respectively followed by Odisha which reported 154 such cases. The Forest Survey of India report 2021 underlined that 10.66 per cent area of forest cover in India falls in the category of 'extremely to very highly' fire-prone zone.
Highlighting the importance of having a preventive measures that need to be integrated with the local knowledge and local communities, Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of Wildlife Society of Odisha and former member of National board of Wildlife told Gaon Connection, "Until and unless you bring the communities together, that are actually dependent on forest and have preventive measures based on forest type and the climate type in that region through a granular risk assessment you cannot manage forest fire better. You might end up spending a lot of billions of dollars in terms of management but at the end of the day this will only aggravate because of this clear mismatch".
Biswajit Mohanty added that in Odisha, preventive measures are completely local based. "99 per cent of these are based on the local community. We have seen in Odisha, wherever the locals are proactive, they have ensured that fire won't take place, there we have seen successful fire fighting and not a single acre of forest was being burnt," he told Gaon Connection.