A fire in my soul, smoke in my lungs, ashes in my mouth

April 2: We reached Dehra Dun’s airport (altitude 558 m) in the morning, two hours before our flight. It was crowded, no social distancing, and we were glad for our double masks. Two hours stretched to four and then a brief announcement of the cancellation of our flight. The gate agent said “Bad visibility”. Huh! The sky was absolutely clear. Tickets were refunded quickly, and the baggage handed back. Our one hour flight by an ATR-72 was to be followed by a four hour drive to Almora (altitude 1604 m). This now became a ten hour drive. What causes less pollution: fifty people on a single flight, or them individually, or in groups, driving the same distance? Late at night, climbing past Naini Tal (altitude 2084 m), I spotted fires on the forested slopes. The smell of smoke penetrated my mask. Bad visibility began to make sense.

April 3: Forest fires do not always give you spectacular photos, sometimes all you see is haze. The next morning as we walked through the forest trails in Binsar National Park (altitude 2410 m), the haze in the air cut off all views of Nanda Devi (altitude 7816 m), Trishul (altitude 7120 m), Panchachauli (altitude 6904 m). That was part of the reason for coming here. Most of the haze seemed to be lower down, and I couldn’t smell any smoke. We took the short walk up to zero point, the highest place in the park. I looked up the SPM levels in Almora, which is the nearest place where measurements are taken. That seemed to be at a level where exercise could be unhealthy. Much of the next seven days we would find ourselves surrounded by haze, the smell of smoke permeating our masks. The air quality was dangerous very often, preventing us from taking the walks we had planned on.

April 4: We’d planned a long drive from Binsar to Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). It was not only tiring, after the unplanned drive two days before, but also took us through hellish terrain. At times the fire had spread to areas right next to the road. May and June are often a season of forest fires through Kumaon, but this winter had been warm and dry. Forest fires had apparently started in October 2020. People we talked to expected that it would continue till the monsoon. In cities, since the air is always bad, most people have become conscious of the effect of haze and pollution on health. In this place, where the air is normally clear, that understanding has not taken hold.

Why do fires start? We got multiple answers to this question from people we talked to, and perhaps all of them are right. One said that some fires are set by villagers, and they go out of control. Usually winters are wet, with rains every couple of days, and the fires are easily doused. But this was a particularly dry winter. It hadn’t rained for a week in Binsar, we were told. Perhaps. Rains were predicted when we packed, so I’d brought along a light poncho which was never unpacked. A dry winter leads to conditions where fires can go out of control, and then large scale fires change conditions so that it does not rain. This out of control feedback seemed to have set in over Kumaon.

Others told us about the forest department setting fires to clear deadwood. In Almora someone showed us the thick carpet of dry leaves which had fallen off white oak trees (Quercus leucotrichophora, banj in Hindi). This was the reason why fires run out of control, he said. Someone else showed us thick mats of needles dropped by Roxburgh pines (Pinus roxburghii, chir or cheel in Hindi) as we walked through Binsar. This was the reason why fires were raging he argued. Both were right, of course, a dry winter produces kindling. One person told us that green branches of oaks burn readily, which is why villagers use them in the kitchen when nothing else is available. But the fires around us carried a smell of pine resin. When I stopped to take the photo above I could hear the popping and crackling of pines as they caught fire. Oaks could burn, but many of the slopes have extensive pine forests.

The air did not clear up as the road climbed to Munsiyari. The place is known for its views of Panchachauli, but through this thick haze we would have to be very lucky to see anything. The road climbs to about 2500 meters before dipping in to Munsiyari. At the very top of the climb we were lucky enough to spot a female Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) as it ran across the road. We stopped the car and tiptoed to the edge, and I saw the male in the split second before it noticed me and disappeared into the undergrowth. Both were lifers for me. Between the bad light and the fast movements a photo was impossible. When we reached our hotel and looked at the TV news, it was grim. The fires had spread from Kumaon into Garhwal. A significant fraction of Uttarkhand state’s 53,000 square Kms was on fire.

April 5: We’d selected the hotel for the view of the mountains we would have. But the thick smoke covered everything. When something like this gets into the news, you can bid goodbye to reason. There was a lot of finger-pointing and buck-passing in and off prime time. Why would the forest department not be more careful? Someone said that they hire contractors and they do not follow guidelines. What was the state government doing? They borrowed two helicopters from the air force to dump water on the fire: one for Garhwal, another for Kumaon. Such a large part of the state was on fire that this inadequate move had to be nothing but optics for TV. Meanwhile, on the ground there was no major change. By evening we’d got a few drops of rain. Perhaps the next morning would be good. We were to leave for Kausani (altitude 1890 m) late in the morning, and we might get a view of the Panchachauli before we left.

April 6: It rained for an hour at night, and we woke up to a faint view of the mountains. There was also time for an hour’s walk up before we left for Kausani. The hills around Kausani were ablaze, and the smoke was terrible. We decided to cut short our stay here and retreat to the lower lakes. They had had crystal clear air when we came up. We had a long chat with the owner of our hotel over dinner. He thought that the connection between ordinary people and the forest had been cut because the forest department stood between them. It is an interesting point of view, and I’ve heard variants of it before: conservation can only come when the state becomes a helper to the people who live in a landscape. If you give people no stake in the land or forest, they will not take care of it. True enough, I suppose, but was this the whole story of this disaster? Such a large scale disaster must have multiple causes.

April 7: It was a short drive to Naukuchia Tal (altitude 1220 m), so we had time to chat with people on the way. One theory we heard was that trees are money, and fires are a good cover for illegal trade in trees. Stories of corruption have a way of circulating, and you don’t know whether they are correct unless someone takes the trouble to investigate. With all these varied viewpoints about human motivation, one thread was constant: that this was a dry year, little rain, and the fire was spreading because of that. This part of the story was something we had experienced. The drive took us through several patches of burning forests. Were there more fires where there were more people? I could not tell.

April 8: The air in Naukuchia Tal was relatively clear on our first day there. We even saw worker clearing away dry leaves from the slopes around Naini Tal, perhaps a precautionary measure. In the evening we saw a big plume of smoke on a slope across the lake. It died out within an hour. It seemed to me that someone in a farm had set fire to the stubble left over in the fields after a harvest. Luckily this didn’t spread. How widespread was this risky behaviour? I recalled reading that when farmers had two crops a year they would leave the stubble in the fields to rot back into the earth. As they move to three crops a year, they want to clear the stubble faster, and use fire to do it. I’d seen government advertisements on the long drive from Dehra Dun requesting farmers to stop this practice. Was there an alternative? I haven’t followed this issue enough to know the answer.

April 9: The morning was not as clear as it had been the previous day. Clearly the fire had come closer during the night. We decided to drive to Mukteshwar (altitude 2170 m) for lunch. There are supposed to be good views of the high Himalayas from this little town, but we neither expected, nor got, any view of the mountains. The smoke obscured everything. We dropped in to the Devasthal astronomical observatory (altitude 2450 m). The 4 meter liquid telescope was under maintenance. Viewing was said to have been wonderful from here in the 1960s and 70s, but in recent years the moisture content in the atmosphere has increased, obscuring the telescope’s view somewhat. Another victim of climate change! Astronomers have moved to Leh in Ladakh, and the world’s largest telescope could come up there soon.

April 10: Our bags were packed for the last time. We would spend the day at Sat Tal (altitude 1730 m) and drive on to the plains. The Sat Tal valley smelt of smoke. We’d only had one clear day till now, our first day in the lake district. The evening news spoke about these forest fires spreading into the Nanda Devi National Park. Ecological disasters seldom make it to the TV news channels or the large circulation newspapers. Even now, even with forest fires on this scale, this news was being squeezed out by the rising COVID-19 second wave and the state elections across the country. The next day, as we drove to Delhi (altitude 220 m) to catch our flight back home we read that the air force helicopter which was requisitioned for fire fighting in Kumaon had been sent back without being used at all.

What did we learn? The weather is definitely a major factor; in dry years like this the risks are immense. Most predictions agree that a warming climate is also a wet climate, but there will be local differences which are not yet worked out. Along with the climate, there are multiple human factors involved in safeguarding the environment within which we have to live and work. Why do farmers set fire to their fields every year? Farming is under stress, and farmers should have a stake in clearing fields safely. In Uttarakhand, where farms and forests mingle, mistakes are costly. Similarly, the methods of clearing forest debris may need to be re-examined. Do common people have a stake in the health of the forests? The government’s stewardship of the land has to involve the local population, otherwise there are just not enough hands to fight fires. These are all big questions, and many people are thinking about it. We just happened to be caught in the middle of an object lesson for a few days.

Shoja

The distance between Jalori pass and Gushaini is not large, but the roads are narrow and hug the mountains above the winding courses of the Tirthan and Banjar rivers. We drove quickly through the town of Banjar. We had a glimpse of shops fronting narrow roads. A few turns, and the road had left the town behind. We wanted to stop for chai, and Soni decided that Shoja is the best place for a morning’s cuppa.

Shoja turned out to have all the charm that Gushaini and Banjar don’t. The Young Niece oohed and aahed about the view, so I walked with her a hundred meters along the road to the end of the town and took the featured photo. We’d been seeing these terraced fields near every village, but this was the nicest view of that we’d had. The clumps of chir pine (Pinus roxburghi) and banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) salted through the fields, clouds descending from the mountain tops, and the beautiful light were something to enjoy in silence.

When we walked back our chai was ready. I gulped down my glassful and wandered up the road to take a few photos of the town. The tailor was already at work at his pedal operated sewing machine. The booth behind him must be the trial room. I was surprised that the village is large enough to support a tailor full time. I guess its main earnings are from farms and orchards. Tourism may bring in a little money, since there are possibly some home-stays and a hotel in this village. It looked very clean and more prosperous than Gushaini, but that may just be because it hasn’t grown haphazardly.

By now everyone had finished their tea, and we all walked back down the road to take another look at the farms around the village. I got another shot of the slopes and the farmhouses nestled in the fields. There are several interesting small walks around this village, but I had one planned at a higher altitude. We piled back into the car and drove on to Jalori pass.

Peace, quiet, and hard labour

The Falachan river descends from the Zangsu glacier, falling rapidly from about 5 Kilometers above sea level to about 1.5 Kilometers, where it merges into the Tirthan river. We spent a quiet afternoon walking in the Falachan valley at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers. The Family is always magicked by heights. This was the first time The Young Niece had been in the Himalayas, and she was listening to The Lotus talk about the mountains. At one especially beautiful point in the road I took three photos: the featured photo and the two below.

A traditional wooden house with slate roof stood on the road, and below us the Falachan moved rapidly. We crossed a high bridge to a hill on the other side of the river. The untarred path from here moved down in a steep slope to nearly the level of the river. It was late afternoon. We’d eaten a large lunch, and one of Ram’s lovely desserts: chocolate balls dusted with coconut powder. The Young Niece protested about the coconut but ate twice as many as any of us. Now we were walking off the lethargy that usually follows such a lunch.

The glacier-melt of the Falachan was absolutely clear. In the golden sun I could see the bottom clearly. Since we were on a holiday I could take my time to gaze at the hypnotic sight of eddies over the stones at the bottom of the river. There is trout here, but I could not see them. The others walked on, leaving me to catch up. I was trying out long exposures on my camera, but I’d forgotten to bring a tripod on the trip. I would be able to capture a sense of the eddies, but not the silkiness of the water.

I followed the others, crossing a rickety little bridge over a rushing waterfall. It swayed as you walked, and some of the planks were better avoided. In one place a plank was missing and you had to skip over the gap. The stream was not far below. A fall could be nasty, but not fatal. We’d seen bridges like this before, but it was a novelty for The Young Niece. She was very excited and waiting for me on the other side. I stopped on the bridge to take a photo of the rushing water. Two outcrops channeled the water into a narrow stream, creating a very shallow rapid. A tripod would have come in handy here. With a really long exposure I could have got a sense of the silky smoothness of the film of water rushing over stone.

The photo that you see above is the longest exposure I could get standing on that swaying bridge. All this water eventually derives from glaciers. Nowadays I cannot help thinking of what climate change would do. The glaciers are melting faster than before, the shallow waters are still not too warm for trout. Not too far in the future, the last of the ice will melt, and the land will become dry. The evergreen forests will already have changed in composition, but as the hills die, the vegetation would no longer hold the soil, and it will start eroding faster. Life in the hills will certainly change. But the afternoon was too pretty to waste on morbid thoughts of a world only The Young Niece would see.

We decided to follow the path up. Was there a destination? We weren’t sure. There were some villages along the path, but we had no idea how far off. This whole area was full of flowing streams and mountain springs, so a high village would not have a major problem with water. Of course, villages tend to grow, and eventually to use up all the water available to them. We had decided to avoid coming through Shimla because it was completely without water. From the road we’d seen a forest of chir pines (Pinus roxburghii). They are the most abundant trees at these lower slopes of the Himalayas, and very little can grow below their canopy. However, chir pine needs sunlight. On this north-facing slope banj oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora, Himalayan white oak) arched over the path.

The Lotus is worse than me at slopes. He decided to rest under the oaks. The Family wanted to walk up a little further. I followed, and The Young Niece, who was still energized by the dessert, came along. There was a steep bit right at the beginning, but then the path levelled off after a turn around the hill. This southern slope was full of chir pines. In the massive trunk of one I saw that rusty iron trishuls had been planted, and they were festooned with the gauzy red scarves reserved for holy sites. Trishuls hold an ambiguous place; they are weapons, but they are also religious objects. I pointed out the rough bark of the chir pine to The Young Niece. The ground was strewn with the pine cones and needles. When the layer of needles is thick enough it deters other trees from growing through.

There was no sign of a village. I hadn’t really expected one closer than five Kilometers away. We could look down into a narrow gorge cut by the stream which later becomes the waterfall crossed by the rickety old bridge. There was a single house by the stream, at the bottom of a cascade of rhododendron trees. Unfortunately the flowering season was over. Looking up-slope we could see another single house at the top of a scarp. This single family had terraced the slope in front of their house and converted it to agricultural use. I thought of all that this must have involved. I don’t think that I will be able to do that kind of physical labour. We turned back from this point.