Arunachala reforestation efforts began back in the nineteen eighties. Before that the hill was mainly bare, from frequent fires which burned unchecked. Setting fire to the hill was a deliberate practice dating back decades, done to promote the dominance of a type of wild lemon-grass which is gathered by village women and used as thatching for houses. The fires prepared the ground for the lemon-grass and burnt off competitive plants.
Once the reforestation efforts started to succeed (and as a part of the success), the problem of fires on the hill was one that had to be solved. Education of villagers (and visitors) is one important part of the process, as are efforts in fire prevention and the creation of a fire watch for early detection. Another big element in fire control are 14 km of firebreaks, 10 meters wide, cleared of grass and plants that easily spread fire. This fire break is cleared again each year, a big project using lots of people-power. The 14 km of breaks is about all that can be cleared in a season. These fire breaks stop the spread of most fires.
The last element in dealing with fires is fire suppression, actually putting the fire out. This is done by a group of about 30 strong young men beating out the fire with leafy branches. They usually fight about 15 fires each year.
The summer (April and May, the two hottest months of the year) this year has been particularly bad for fires on Arunachala. On April 20th there was the largest fire since 2004. Then, about two weeks later, there was yet another fire, nearly as bad.
This article shows something of the fires and the fire crew. The crew is a team mainly from The Forest Way, a local NGO that is deeply involved with the greening of Arunachala. They are helped by dedicated local people, like Saran and some men who work with him on mountain projects. These photos show the devastation by fire over wide areas of Arunachala.
April 20, 2012
The photo below shows the view of Arunachala from the south, about 1/2 km from Ramanasramam, from the grounds of the Forest Way Reforestation Center. Clouds of smoke rise from the mountain, the fire in progress.
This is a day of strong winds, and these winds have driven the fire over fire breaks, spreading the fire further than is usual. You can’t see them, but there is a team on the mountain now, fighting the fire. The ridge to the right of the smoky area is charred black. They were able somehow to stop the fire at the ridgeline.
On the map below, the colored area in the center of the map approximates the burn area for the fire this day. It is a substantial area of Arunachala!
Part of the fire fighting crew coming down the hill. This photo gives you an idea of the terrain they work in. Note the big burned area below them.
The burned-over ridge. On the top part of the ridge you can see a big rectangular rock, beneath which is a cave. To give you an idea about where this fire was, look at this posting about climbing to this cave.
Below, we see Govinda coming down the hill. He is ahead of the crew. He is the leader of the fire crew and the organizer and creative power behind The Forest Way organization.
His daughter offers him a tender coconut to drink as soon as he arrives at The Forest Way facility.
A pile of coconuts has been opened and is waiting for the rest of the crew to get down from the hill. It is quite rugged fighting fires on this mountain, and not enough water can be carried up. So when the crew is down from the hill they are hot, dry and parched.
Govinda sits for a bit. He looks tired. Look at the black soot on his arms and feet.
These feet and legs have been at ‘ground zero’ of the fire fighting. When I was him after the second fire, he had deep burns on his foot, the size of a big coin.
Other members of the crew start arriving.
The first thing is to drink the tender coconut. This juice restores electrolytes besides providing fluids and nourishment.
They meet and talk about what is next. While they have beaten one part of the fire, the rest remains to be conquered.
They can see the fire on the hill.
Some people eat.
Then it is back up the hill for more. Govinda is leading the crew up.
This is what they face.
They spread out to fight the fire.
Some places are pretty hot.
Like this. Would you like to fight this fire by beating at it with a leafy branch?
They continued to fight the fire, beating it out until they stopped it. It was the largest fire on Arunachala in almost ten years.
April 25, 2012
The fire was serious enough that a few days later a group of people concerned about Arunachala met to discuss the situation. This included Govinda, who led most of the meeting, along with some people who have been involved in reforestation for many years, people from Sri Ramanasramam, and other interested parties (like me). Much was discussed, but to fight the fires the biggest need is for strong healthy people who have the inner motivation to take on this kind of fire fighting. Money and organization and bureaucracy do not help beyond a point.
In the case of this fire, they say they need to add one more fire watch station. There are presently five places from which fire watch is done. None covered this area.
May 8, 2012
A bit more than two weeks later, after the biggest fire in almost a decade, another large fire breaks out. This time it is on the north side of Arunachala. This side is much less developed, fewer paths up the mountain, less well known, and, because it has not been a fire hazard before, no firebreaks.
It is about one o’clock in the afternoon when this photo was taken.
The fire is hot and spreading rapidly.
Here is “The Elephant” seen in many beautiful photos of Arunachala. Today The Elephant is shrouded in grey smoke from the fire.
This fire is shown on the map below, approximating its extent.
This is not the way we want Arunachala to look!
I can’t stand the sight of the fire burning across the hillsides; the animals and birds, the trees and shrubs, how long will it take Arunachala to recover from the fire? I just don’t know.
The fire burns across the hillside.
They fought this fire until about midnight, in the dark, without light. Their water has run out. This side of the hill also has many thorn bushes, so you move in the dark and become ensnarled with “Hook Thorns,” the nastiest thorn on the mountain.
I asked Leela, Govinda’s wife, “Do you ever get frightened?” She replied, “On nights like this, when he is fighting a fire in the dark.”
This photo shows how far the fire has moved on the mountainside. The final extent was greater, the fire burned on for almost 12 hours after these photos were taken.
The map below shows the two fire areas. Maybe 1/3 of Arunachala has been covered in flames in the last few weeks. And the hot summer is only about half over. What is next?
One thing for each of you readers to take away from this article is to be very careful with fire when you come visit Arunachala. Do not smoke on the Inner Path or any of the paths and trails on Arunachala, or between Arunachala and the road around it. Do not start any fires, for any reason, here, ever. Be extra careful with deepam lamps, incense and camphor. Be careful yourself, and tell others to take care as well. Everyone has to help.
Great care needs to be taken so that the greening of Arunachala, now started, can be successful. There will be fire danger until such a time as the tree canopy closes above the lemon-grass, and this plant no longer grows so well. Maybe this takes 10 years, maybe 40; no one knows. The effort has to be sustained until the forest is successfully restored.
In a few weeks we will have updates to this article. Keep your eyes out for this.
Note: Many of these photos were taken by Leela, Govinda’s wife.