Some influential people engaged in fishing often set fire to bushes and plants of the Sundarbans mangrove forest under Chandpai range as they think that the particular ashes attract more fishes.
The specific spot where the recent incidents of fire broke out is relatively higher than the nearby areas, but it goes under water in the monsoon. The businessmen torch this part of the forest ahead of the rainy season so that the ashes bring in more fishes in the area when submerged.
This spot, separated from the main forest by a canal, is full of herbs and shrubs.
“The local influential people have repeatedly been burning these plants to get more fishes in the monsoon,” Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad, country representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh, said, adding that they have not found any scientific proof behind the belief.
He observes that the latest fire – fourth time in a month – would not harm the main forest as it is isolated and there is no presence of tall or dense trees. “But the fire will certainly affect the ecosystem of the area,” said Ishtiaq, also a former chief conservator of forests.
The latest fire that broke out in Tulatola area under Dhansagar Forest Station on April 27 was yet to be brought under control as of filing of this report at 10:30pm. Fire fighters said the fire spread on four kilometres area of the forest affecting Sundori, Gewa, Chalua and Amra trees as well as many herbs and shrubs.
The work to put out the fire has become tough due to the dry weather and heat wave as well as water crisis.
Earlier, fire broke out three times in a four kilometre-radius area under Dhansagar Forest Station of Chandpai range in the Sundarbans east zone. The first fire occurred on March 27 in Abdullah Chila area and it took the fire service and forest officials eight hours to douse the fire.
Fire engulfed part of the forest in Nangli area under Dhansagar on April 13 and Pocha Koralia area on April 18. In both the cases, the fire was brought under control after 24 hours.
According to the Forest Department officials, the same area has experienced fire on 25 occasions in the last 14 years.
They claim that the latest fire incident is a sabotage. It came as a retaliation as they sued some people for the April 13 fire incident.
Divisional Forest Officer of the east zone Saidul Islam said it was taking much time to douse the fire because of heat wave and strong wind.
Moreover, in some places the roots of shrubs have caught fire making the task difficult, he added.
They are also facing water crisis since they have to bring water from a place two kilometres away through pipeline.
Apart from the fire officials, around 100 local people have also been working to douse the fire.
Forest Conservator (Khulna region) Md Zahir Uddin Ahmed claimed that they had already brought the fire under control. But when asked, he said that they had nothing to do with the smoke coming out at some spots.
The Environment and Forests Ministry has already formed a six-member probe committee led by a joint secretary to find out the reason behind the fire and to assess the loss.
Md Mojahed Hossain, the team leader, is supposed to submit the report by next 10 days.
The Forest Department filed two cases against some locals including ruling party leaders after the fire incidents of April 13 and 18. “Angered by the cases, these people have set the forest on fire again,” he claimed.
Meanwhile, Sharankhola OC Shah Alam said that they had arrested one Khalilur Rahman Hawlader from Uttor Rajapur yesterday as he was facing arrest warrant in a case filed with the police station.
Three forest officials were also suspended for negligence in performing their duties properly.
In the wake of subsequent fire incidents, the Forest Department on Thursday issued a special alert for Chandpai and Sharankhola ranges, asking locals – who depend on the forest resources – not to enter the forest.
In addition, it has also stopped issuing pass for people engaged in fishing and collecting honey.
The restrictions would be in effect until the forest returns to normalcy, Sharankhola Range Officer Kamal Uddin Ahmed said.
Earlier, they formed five fire watch committees with three members each. The teams were asked to monitor every two-kilometre area.
Md Atul Mandal, the Sharankhola UNO, said that they would launch mobile courts to try the people engaged in subversive activities.
Members of Rapid Action Battalion and Coast Guard have increased patrol in the area.
‘Reform Forest Department’
Demanding fair probe into the fire incidents, rights activists, NGO workers and academicians of Khulna have asked the government to modernise the Forest Department and make the forest laws stricter.
From a press conference in the city, the speakers alleged that subversive acts centring the Sundarbans had increased alarmingly. Moreover, the people who depend on the forest have been made more vulnerable through the restrictions imposed by the authorities.
In his written statement, Jana Udyog Member Secretary Mahendra Nath Sen also said that the Forest Department officials should not be kept in the investigation teams to ensure fair probe.
“The Sundarbans has protected us [from natural disasters] like a mother. We should also stay alert to protect it,” he added.