Pakistan: Probe launched into Margalla Hills fire in Islamabad

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Islamabad wildlife officials have launched an investigation into the spate of fires deliberately lit inside Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) on Friday. Image Credit: Supplied

Islamabad: Islamabad wildlife officials have launched an investigation into the spate of fires deliberately lit inside Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) on Friday.

“An investigation is now underway” into the fires started “deliberately” and police have been deputed in local villages inside the park after the fire was doused, said Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB). The national park has been closed for the public until the inquiry is completed and the damage to the park assessed.

Several fires incidents were reported inside Margalla Hills Park on May 28 on Trail 3, top of Trail 6, Bari Imam (Noorpur) side, D-12 and Trail 5 a day earlier. All fires have been put out.

The fires inside MHNP are generally “not natural forest fires” and many factors are involved. But the recent fires “were clearly intentional and IWMB staff in fact spotted one individual lighting fires on top of Trail 6.” The man eluded capture, as he was 2 kilometers away, which is why the wildlife organisation launched the arson probe. The city administration is coordinating with numberdars (village chiefs) to find out if any villager was involved in the setting fire. “Strict action will be taken against those found involved” officials said.

Dry summer

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 jobs by the government 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, MHNP 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.

The IWMB’s 60-member staff risked their lives to control the fires and protect the forest. Some of the park rangers sustained minor burn injuries. Many wildlife guards and firefighters go into the blazing areas without the proper gear. Instead, they use traditional methods to put out fires such as beating back the fire with bushes and using cutting tools to prevent the spreading of the blaze and counter-fire technique.

The fire incidents have exposed the urgent need for “more resources for IWMB so that they have better equipment and additional staff for patrolling and firefighting inside the nearly 200 square kms of park area” said the IWMB Chairperson Rina Saeed Khan.

Patrolling continues

The IWMB and Capital Development Authority (CDA) brought the fire under control by Saturday afternoon. “The fires are out but the pine trees are still smoldering. The firefighting is done. Now we will begin the damage assessment of the area” and loss of trees and animals, Rina Saeed, the IWMB chairman, told Gulf News.

IWMB staff is facing the daunting challenge to protect the park with fewer resources and support from relevant authorities. More than equipment, “We need better coordination” with CDA and all the relevant departments “to protect our valuable forest and precious wildlife” Rina said. The board hopes to install cameras around the park, increase patrolling and begin drone surveillance in the future for better management.

Wildfires pose a significant threat to the Margalla Hills forests. “Almost 25,812.36 hectares forest area was burned from May 2005 to July 2018” in at least 299 recorded fire occurrences, according to a May 2021 study by Aqil Tariq et al on forest fire monitoring in Margalla Hills. The study also suggested the use of remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) to map forest fire risk zones for effective management and protection of the forest resources.