For seven days, a massive forest fire has eroded the forest lands of the Neelakurinji Sanctuary in Vattavada as well as parts of Pampadum Shola National Park in Munnar, Kerala. Officials believe that the fire was man-made.
According to an official with the Forest Department, the fire has destroyed large plantation areas of eucalyptus trees and grasslands in Kadavari, Pazhathottam, Melechenduvara and Chenduvara. “Our initial estimate is that over 1,000 hectares were gutted over the last several days. The Forest Department has registered two cases for the man-made forest fire,” the official said.
“These fires are man-made and set by the land mafia,” said Chinnai Assistant Wildlife Warden PM Prabhu. He said the intention was to target the Neelakurinji sanctuary. “They expect to exempt the area from the Kurinji sanctuary. If we douse the fire on one side, they will set fire from other directions. The fire mainly affected the Jandamala, Pazhathottam and Oorkkad areas."
"A team of over 250 members comprising local people and staff of the Forest Department worked hard to douse the fire. We created firewalls by felling trees but even that was not effective as the fires spread to large areas and moved in different directions," the forest official said.
The wildfire at the Neelakurinji sanctuary in Vattavada was brought under control on Thursday. “After a lot of hard work, we doused the fire in Kadavari on Thursday morning. But a fire is still active at the Tamil Nadu border and it creates a threat of another fire,” a forest department official said. The fire in the Jandamala area of the Pampadum Shola National Park is also still not under control.
The forest fire began last Friday at Pazhathottam near Vattavada in Idukki and later spread over multiple areas. The fires in Jandamala near Pampadum Shola National Park, Oorkkad near Vattavada, Kadavari in the Neelakurinji sanctuary were allegedly set by the land mafia, forest officials said.
Vast swathes of grasslands and forested areas have been destroyed in the fires. Pampadum Shola and Anamudi Shola, both of which have suffered immense fire damage, are protected biodiversity hotspots and known for their rich fauna and flora.
In 2018, a fire engulfed the sanctuary for the Neelakurinji flower (strobilanthes kunthiana). A forest department official told TNM that the 2018 fire had also allegedly been started by the land mafia. The fire had negatively impacted the next flowering, which takes place only once in 12 years.
However, Vattavada panchayat president P Ramaraj blames the forest department for its failure to prevent the fires in the sanctuary area, saying, "The allegations that the land mafia are behind this are baseless. The Forest Department failed to create fire lines in the forest areas at the proper time. Basically, the fire started naturally due to the heat wave in the area."
Ramaraj added, "We suspect some of the fires were set by the Forest Department officials. We have called an emergency panchayat meeting on Saturday to discuss this issue."