Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Forestry and Environment department has said that over 200 incidents of wildfires across the province have damaged forests and pastures spreading over an area of 14,430 acres over past two weeks.

An official report prepared by the department said that a total of 55 of the wildfires appeared to be deliberate and have been started by locals. In addition to this, 12 others were started to dry weather conditions while causes for remaining 142 others were unknown.

Latifur Rehman, a spokesperson for the Forestry and Environment department said that there was no truth to the reports that the government would pay Rs 100,000 for a green tree torched in the forest fire.

He said that about 55 incidents were started due to this fake news with the intention of claiming the compensation money.

He said that his department had lodged FIRs and at least 21 persons had been arrested in connection with starting the blazes.

Mr Latif said that the forest department and the district administrations were investigating the causes of the remaining 143 fire incidents to ascertain whether such fires erupted due to human involvement or were caused by dry weather.

The report stated that majority of the blazes were ground fires, in dry grasses, with 68 per cent in communal and private lands and over 73 per cent of the affected area also either communal or private land.

The report stated that rising temperatures, a key indicator of climate change, evaporate more moisture from the ground, drying out the soil, and making vegetation more flammable.

It said that at the same time winter snow packs were melting about a month earlier, meaning the forests were drier for longer periods of time.

“As drought and heat continues with rising greenhouse gas emissions, the forestry department fears more wildfires in years ahead,” it said.

Quoting the data of Pakistan Meteorological Department the report said showing record lesser rains in the previous few months due to changes in the environmental pattern.

“According to the PMD statistics the national rainfall for March 2022 – ranked 9th driest month since 1961 – was 62 per cent below normal,” it said.

The report said that the forest dependent communities traditionally burn dry grass to get tender grass for livestock, which sometimes results in forest fires due to winds and casual attitude of the communities.

Besides, it said that due to increase in population the demand for agricultural land has increased manifold and fire is put to clear the land (April to June) for converting vegetated lands into agriculture fields – a reference to the grasses being put to fire.

It said that due to local enmities conflicting groups burn the agriculture produce and trees of the other, resulting into forest fires as it might have happened in the case of Sherani and Shangla forest fire incidents.

Under the Billion Tree Afforestation Project huge plantations are established on the property of the absentee owners in rural areas, which was previously utilized by other non-owners as grazing ground for their cattle. This has developed a personal conflict of locals, which might have resulted in the fire incidents, the report said.

The report states that population growth in itself along with investments in hospitality sector in hilly areas has caused private housing as well as hotels, etc to venture higher and deeper into the forests, mountains and wooded areas.

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