DANG, APRIL 13
In the eight years that Basudev Pokharel has worked as a forest guard, he has rarely seen a fire as huge as the one that raged through his village in western Nepal in March.
Hundreds of such fires have been spreading across the country since November, in the worst wildfire season Nepal has seen in a decade.
The night the blaze reached Pokharel's village of Sungure, in Dang, a neighbour woke him to warn him. "We tried to control the fire, but it spread so rapidly we were helpless," the 55-year-old recalled. "The fire came very close to my house and burned all the hay that I had piled up to feed the animals. Luckily, I could save my house."
The government sent a fire control expert to direct villagers as they tackled the blaze, and by the next day it was out, but only after destroying more than 80 hectares of forest.
As large swathes of Nepal and some northern parts of neighbouring India continue to burn, the smoke and ash have caused air pollution levels to spike, with experts warning increasingly frequent droughts linked to climate change could make massive wildfires more common.
Villagers say the fire has been a disaster for the 460 households near the forest.
"Many people here depend on firewood for cooking and much of it has been destroyed," said Bimal Kumar Bhusal, a villager. "We will also face a shortage of grass (for animals) as it has all been burned down," he added.
According to Bijay Raj Subedi, a forest officer in Dang, wildfires in Nepal are often caused by humans, either intentionally or by accident. Villagers regularly set fire to trees to create charcoal, to scare animals out of hiding, so they can hunt them, or to clear areas in the hope of encouraging growth of mushrooms or new flushes of grass. But an unusually dry winter this year has meant smaller fires can more easily spread out of control, Subedi noted.
According to Nepal's disaster risk reduction agency, more than 2,700 fire incidents were recorded between mid-November 2020 and the last week of March, a period that covers most of the dry season.
This is the worst fire season in terms of number of fires since the country started keeping records in 2012, and more than double the previous high of 989 wildfires in the 2015-2016 dry season.
The air quality index (AQI) has recorded pollution levels in Dang above 100 most days since last month. An AQI level below 50 is considered good.
Last week, levels in the capital Kathmandu were above 470, which is categorised as hazardous.
Schools around Nepal were closed for four days at the end of March, as students complained of irritation in their eyes and throats from the smoke.
Naya Sharma Poudel, a coordinator for Forest Action Nepal, a non-profit based in Lalitpur, said while forest fires are not the sole cause of rising air pollution in Nepal, 'they are definitely one of the major causes.' Prakash Lamsal, a spokesman at the Ministry of Forests and Environment, said villagers are trained to work with forestry officers to contain and extinguish fires in their areas, using fire lines along with equipment provided by the district government. "However, the spread of the fires this year was so rapid that most of the forest fires are out of our control," he added.
A version of this article appears in the print on April 14, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.