On a lovely spring morning in mid-March of 2014, Jadeyappa, Deputy Ranger of Bandipur, was heading out for the day. This year, the forest fire season had been unusually quiet. The park had done its usual preparations of fire-line tracing and deploying additional firewatchers; preparations were intensive as dried bamboo posed a big threat. The previous years had passed off with just a few incidents, and the forest had recovered with the monsoons. This year, the staff got lucky; a few persistent showers in February had certainly helped keep the fire pressure very low.
Planning his day ahead from his headquarters in Bandipur’s tourism zone, Jadeyappa thought it worthwhile to take a look at the Mangala Dam section because the threat of poaching would be high as the water levels were down. Accompanied by a couple of guards, he set off on the usual foot patrol towards the Mangala Dam. It was noon by the time they reached the dam, and he was surprised to see 8-10 people fishing in the receding waters. Just as he guessed, they were villagers from a nearby village. The villagers were sent back after a few words were exchanged; at some point, tempers flared. The patrol team hung around the reservoir to ensure that the villagers actually left. The villagers retreated towards where they had come from, and as they neared the park boundary, they noted the wind direction, and ensuring that the wind was blowing from the fringe towards the Tiger Reserve, the group started multiple fires. The wind quickly took over, and thus started the great fire of Bandipur, in March 2014.
A t-shirt with an ashen tiger symbolically tells the story of the tiger-land ravaged by fire.
Gregariously flowered and dried bamboo (Bambusa arundinacea) clumps in the Bandipur landscape made it a tinderbox.
Dried bamboo, due to its hollow nature, sucks up the fire to the top of the canopy, and its splinters spread to a large area, starting fresh fire points.
The fire which started at the periphery of the Tiger Reserve, aided by strong winds, moved towards the tourism zone and engulfed a large portion of it. Before the entire fire-fighting team could mobilise itself, the fire had turned into a blazing inferno. Dried bamboo added to the problem and their splinters, which were flung far and wide, started many fires; within an hour, the blaze assumed threatening proportions. The department immediately mobilised itself, but unfortunately, the Director was at a meeting in Mysore, and the newly posted junior officers who were new to a wildlife posting could not decide about giving a counter-fire from the Bandipur-Ooty Road. Before any decision was taken, the fire jumped the Bandipur-Ooty Road, passing very close to the Director’s office. At one point, even the tourism complex, staff quarters, and the elephant camp were in danger. Once the fire jumped, the department staff quickly planned to contain the fire by setting a counter fire from the tourism zone roads very close to Karigowdanna Katte and its adjoining area, to contain the fire. The main fire and the counter fire met at Tavarakere, and finally, the fire was brought to manageable proportions; then, the FD staff, assisted by the Jungle Lodges staff, quickly set into motion dousing the fires. Late into the night of 14th March, 2014, things were in control.
The fire swept a large portion of the tourism zone within a few hours.
The fire jumping over the Bandipur-Ooty Road, very close to the Director’s office, led to traffic being stranded.
Flying embers such as these are a big threat post-fire, as they start fresh fires.
Fire-fighting to douse embers continues into the night, as these can be seen only in the dark.
An aerial view with the Tavarekere Lake in the frame shows the extent of the damage.
The staff took a break in the wee hours of the morning. Everything was fine until 10 am the next day, when a strong wind and crackling bamboo started another fresh fire, once again, ferocious. The staff moved in quickly in spite of their tiredness from fighting fire all night coupled with low spirits; the mobilisation of fire tenders from Gundlupet renewed their vigour in fire-fighting. By evening, several rounds of dousing were done.
Fire tenders unaccustomed to the forest terrain put up a good show by reaching the crown fires immediately.
Modern fire fighting tools were immediately deployed. Many times, pipe lengths were woefully inadequate.
High pressure pumps ensured that embers at the top of the canopy were also doused.
The invasive lantana, with its dry, thick and thorny undergrowth, makes fire-fighting difficult.
Interestingly, in recent memory, this was the first instance of the senior-most officers of the Forest Department camping in Bandipur right from day one, co-coordinating the efforts. I joined immediately the day after, to facilitate and co-ordinate the efforts of the staff of Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Jungle Lodges. The extraordinary efforts and herculean tasks which the frontline staff performed in the hours of crisis was unprecedented. From ground zero, the primary effort was to stop further fires and multiple teams were formed to douse the embers of the fire until late in the night. Early morning again saw the team going about the toughest job in the Tiger Reserve. Immense spirit and an unflinching commitment saw them through. An amazing supply chain of food and water for the fire-fighting personnel was maintained. After a few days of fire, the summer rains arrived, and the whole Tiger Reserve management heaved a sigh of relief.
The spread of the forest fire was so quick that it simply jumped past a chital kill, singeing it.
A chital doe with its young one wanders in search of better ground.
Post-fire morning, the smoke on the ground dims the sun as it rises.
Many a times during my work in the field, I have witnessed altercations with local villagers regarding many illicit activities like grazing, firewood collection, honey collection, timber smuggling, poaching etc. The first line of approach of the frontline staff is to gently goad them out rather than take a hard line. In one instance where we had to be tough, I still remember a villager snap at my staff with a smirk “Benki kala barali, nodkolthini.” (When the fire season arrives, we shall see)