Nepal has been grappling with its worst wildfires for years, with hundreds of active fires in the country sending smoke and ash through its cities during one of the worst seasons in recent years. Five people have died trying to put out the fires that have been raging since January.
Sundar Sharma, a senior official at the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, said wildfires were burning in at least 60 places across 22 of Nepal’s 77 administrative districts, he said, adding to the growing levels of pollution across the country that lies nestled between India and the Tibet region of China..
Details on losses from the fires are still being collected, Sharma said. This has been the worst fire season by number since 2012, when the government started keeping records.
“Forest fires are the main reason for the rising air pollution in Kathmandu and many other places,” Sharma told Reuters news agency. “Wildfires could hit the peak later this month if the ongoing dry spell continued,” he said.
On March 2, 2021, a fire destroyed 58 houses in rural Meringden municipality in Taplejung district in northeastern Nepal. The fire broke out due to a short circuit in Bhola Poudel's house at 9 a.m. and spread throughout the neighbourhood. Although the district's only fire engine was sent to the scene from its headquarters, Phungling, by the time it arrived, the fire had caused significant damage.
A similar incident was reported in Phungling Bazar on May 2, 2020, when a fire broke out and destroyed 37 houses. Police Inspector Mohan Prasad Pokharel claimed that nothing could be done to save these houses as one fire engine was not enough there.
In late March, the government ordered the closure of schools for four days after air pollution rose to dangerous levels, forcing millions of students to stay indoors.
Nepal's dry season, which runs from late autumn to early summer, usually peaks with the most severe fires in March and April, when villagers burn dry leaves in forests to stimulate the growth of fresh grass for their livestock.
Since November, 73 of Nepal's 77 districts have reported forest fires, the highest level recorded in the past five fire seasons, according to CNN Weather.
Sharma said the number of fires this year was 15 times the number of fires in 2020. He did not immediately have a reason for the increase.
The air quality index (AQI) in Kathmandu was at an unhealthy level of 174 on April 9, according to data posted on iqair.com. An AQI level below 50 is considered good. “The pollution levels have come down in many places but this is not adequate enough for healthy breathing,” said Indu Bikram Joshi, a spokesman for the Department of Environment.
Basanta Kunwar, the Nepal Police central spokesperson, says the police have recorded 5,064 incidents of fire in the past three years. These incidents killed 158 people, injuring 871 others. The fire events in the past three years resulted in the damage of 2,505 houses and the loss of material property worth Rs 8.5 billion.
It has been found that some local governments are unwilling to buy fire engines even when they have money. It has been six years since the central government allocated 6 million Nepali rupees to each local government to buy fire trucks. However, only 28 local units bought the engines that year. Realising the reluctance, the executive stopped releasing this fund.
Across the border in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, forest fires have been burning since October, killing four people, according to the state government. In April alone, there have been 657 incidents of forest fires in Uttarakhand, most of them in the Garhwal region of the state, close to Nepal.