India battles rampant forest fires in Uttarakhand State

By Shuriah Niazi

NEW DELHI (AA) – Air force helicopters and thousands of rescue workers have been pressed into service to contain raging forest fires in India’s northern Uttarakhand State that have destroyed nearly 2,500 acres of land — and claimed seven lives — over the last three months.

“It is a challenge for us to control such a situation,” Prem Nath, chief forest conservator in Uttarakhand State, said in a Sunday statement.

“With the meteorological department predicting rains in the next two days, we hope the situation will improve. Otherwise, we have to wait till next month for the arrival of the monsoon,” he added.

The Nainital, Tehri, Pauri and Rudraprayag districts have been the hardest-hit by the fires.

The Indian Home Ministry on Sunday sent a four-member team to assess the situation and submit a report within one week.

“About 6,000 people from the National Disaster Response Force, State Disaster Response Force, state police, forest staff and volunteers are deployed there,” read a statement issued by the Home Ministry.

“Three Air Force helicopters, including an advanced light helicopter and two MI-17 helicopters with Bambi buckets, have also been deployed to assist the local administration,” the ministry added.

India’s opposition Congress party, for its part, has accused the government of failing to react quickly to the crisis.

“The [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi government has failed to tackle one of the biggest environmental tragedies of recent times,” party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said in a statement.

Uttarakhand is one of India’s better-known tourist destinations. It also contains many Hindu religious sites.

Since February, nearly 1,000 separate incidents of forest fire — which usually occur in the summer — have been reported in the state.