As the mountains smoulder

June 6, 2021

One can only hope that the Margalla Hills have fewer fires this year and that the relevant institutions can work in coordination with one another to deal with these disasters

Monal restaurant, perched in the lap of the serene Margalla Hills, is considered one of the most frequented areas of Islamabad. Lay citizens, diplomats and dignitaries flock to these hills for a view of the well-planned roads and buildings of the city, especially when they are lit up. But in the last week of May, people living in the city, at the foot of the hills, were looking up at the hills that were covered in white smoke.

“The Margalla trails were closed. Our cameras captured scenes of a massive fire from many kilometers [away]. It was frightening to see it,” says Malik Ramzan Ali, scripts editor at PTV Home. Ali lives close to the Margalla Hills and saw the smoke for many days.

Hasnain Raza, an Islamabad-based National Geographic educator, says that these are natural summer fires. “It has been happening for centuries. These fires are good; they give way to new vegetation. But their increasing frequency is alarming,” he says. “If you look at the patterns, you will find that this May is hotter than the last five years. If fires have started already, what will happen in the days to come?”

The official Twitter account of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) has retweeted national and international newspaper stories that discuss how the board needs more funds and power to be able to fulfill the task of protecting the Margalla Hills. Rina Khan, the IWMB chairperson, has claimed that “every summer, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) inducts nearly 400 villagers on daily wages to patrol and spot forest fires. Some of those who are not inducted, set forests on fire in retaliation.” She claims that her staff has witnessed the arson.

Raja Tufail, a local resident, who runs a restaurant close to Monal, says that no villagers are involved in starting these fires. He says that the CDA hires locals on a temporary basis to deal with fires because they know this area better than others. “These trees and plants are living beings. The birds, insects and animals are all living beings like us. It is an outrage to set fire to these lives. These fires are caused by institutional failure. The IWMB is a new and directionless entity, blaming others for its failures. There has to be a body dedicated to dealing with disasters like fires here,” Tufail says.

The area is a habitat to many endangered species. When asked about the leopards spotted on these hills, Tufail said, “We are used to living with these animals. In most cases, they do not hurt you unless you attract their attention unnecessarily.” Many wild boars also live in the hills. Tufail says that all the animals have been disturbed by these fires.

Small fires have been spotted in several areas but the big one was right next to a couple of posh hotels, to whose existence many objections have been raised by national and international environment groups. The staff of one of these hotels took part in putting out the fire. Big plastic water tanks have been installed by the hotel close to the fire.

In anticipation of the wildfires, the CDA has set up a fire picket. A police picket is also nearby. The Municipal Corporation of Islamabad (MCI) has parked a fire truck on the spot. If you climb up to the picket, you will find more than 20 villagers sitting there, ready to deal with a fire. Arshad Mehmood, who is in charge of the fire picket, says that water and heavy vehicles cannot be transported on this rough terrain.

Though small fires have been spotted in several areas, the big one was right next to a couple of posh hotels, on whose existence many objections have been raised by national and international environment groups.

“These villagers and the CDA staff had to crawl and climb to the spot. We have made our own fire-beaters using the bushes that do not catch fire easily. Pine leaves and wood catch fire easily. The wind was also blowing hard and spreading the fire. There is risk to lives in trying to beat the fire. Many of us have sustained injuries. One of the pine trees is still smoldering, even though we have also doused it with water,” Mehmood says. He added that they had cut some thorny shrubs and plants to make way for emergency vehicles and removed pine leaves and other debris from around the picket so that the staff could sleep without fear of the area catching fire. “It took more than 48 hours to put out this fire. My team and I were not even able to eat our meals during that time. We have no insurance and no modern equipment. Some of the people who come here for picnics do some reckless things that cause fires.”

Some time ago, the UK envoy picked up litter from a nearby area and tweeted a picture of himself doing so. After that, several institutions launched anti-littering drives. Nadeem Reza, an electronic media executive, says that there are ample funds to protect the environment and wildlife coming in from international donors. “But no original work is being done to prevent disasters. The media is engaged in promoting a few faces. As a result, genuine activists are eclipsed and we continue to suffer from environmental threats.”

Amer Ahmed Ali, the CDA chairman, supervised the fire-fighting operation in the hills. “No invitation is necessary for anyone to take part in such activities. Everybody has a responsibility to protect the Margalla Hills and our environment from threats like this fire. The CDA, the army, locals and hotel staff were all putting out this fire. We did it in 48 hours, by the grace of Allah.” Ali says. “The Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad had been bickering over funds and what not. Since we took over, we’ve been doing the job with less funds than we used to release to them. The same fire-fighting vehicles are now working efficiently.”

He says the CDA has introduced an unprecedented Rs 1 billion budget, a couple of days ago, and enough has been set aside to protect the Margalla Hills. “With or without any other institute, we are capable of protecting our hills against fires and other disasters. Money is not a problem. But there has to be a will to do the job and not just look for photo-ops,” Ali says. He says there is always the possibility of a summer fires once the temperature rises above 42 degrees Celsius. This phenomenon is not unique to Islamabad. He says the bushes grown on the Margalla Hills are not natural “which is why these hills are now more prone to disasters”. The trails in these hills were originally meant to facilitate emergency services, especially fire-fighting. “Now, people use these trails for walking and the CDA is okay with it. We know our job and we are prepared to do it,” Ali said.

One can only hope that the Margalla Hills have fewer fires this year and that the relevant institutions can work in coordination with one another to deal with these.

The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on Twitter @furraat

As the mountains smoulder