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Background to the Fire Problem

fire fightingThough reforestation efforts began back in the nineteen eighties, the main impediment to regeneration on the hill was the frequent fires, which remained unchecked.

It seems that setting fire on the Hill was a deliberate practice dating back many decades, to promote the dominance of a type of wild lemon-grass (Cymbopogon martini), used locally as thatching for houses. On the deciduous slopes of forested hills in the region, this grass can be found, but it grows small and does not dominate. Out in the open however, the grass thrives and grows up to 2m tall. Due to it's oil content it burns extremely easily, and with the following rain happily comes back from the roots.

After cutting the grass, the grass-cutters would burn off the stubble. This made the grass easier to cut the following year, and also killed off other plants that might shade out the grass. Although the grass cutters would not have harvested the entire hill, the fires would spread to burn all areas, resulting over time in the dominance of the grass over the entire hill.

In more recent years however, the demand for thatch has dramatically reduced as people switch to concrete roofs. These days there is minimal grass cutting, and the grass cutters do not set fires. However, the legacy of years of fire remains, in the predominance the highly flammable lemon-grass. Whether they are started by carelessness or intentionally, we still face the threat of fire each year.

Four Core Elements of Our Fire Strategy

fire fighting 1. Education
Over the years we have held a number of meetings with the communities living at the base of the hill. The main access to the slopes of the hill is above the town, and it is on this slope that nearly all the fires start. This is also the only area of the hill where people actually live on the slopes. These meetings have gone beyond just raising awareness of negative affects of fire; they have resulted in an amazing team of young fire-fighting volunteers. These boys are often the first on the scene when a fire starts, and over the years some of them have become veterans at beating out the flames. In gratitude and recognition of their work, we've had fire-fighter shirts printed for them, and presented them with sports equipment. But these tokens pale in comparison to the pride and camaraderie we all share when a fire is put out.

2. Prevention and Early Detection
For the length of the dry season, we employ five people as full time fire watchers. Strategically positioned, their job is to inform people climbing the hill of the fire risks, and check is they are carrying matches or lighters. Their other function is as an early warning for when fire does manage to start. This is crucial, as the longer it takes for us to get to the fire, the harder it will be to put out.

3. Fire Lines
Each year we create around 14km of fire breaks across the slopes of Arunachala. This involves the complete removal of all ground vegetation across a strip 10m wide. This is a huge annual undertaking, but has been an absolutely crucial part of our success in controlling fire.

A freshly cleared Fire Line Fire Stopped; with a Fire Line 10m wide,
a ground fire almost never crosses.

4. When Fire Starts, Put it Out.
fire fighting The final part of the strategy is of course to physically fight any fires that do occur. Our methods are simple but effective; using branches with green leaves, we beat the flames down. We have found this more effective than purpose made rubber beaters, and more advanced technology such as fire extinguishers would be too expensive. It's exhausting work in intense heat. It can be difficult to see and breathe due to the smoke. The fire fighters wear only simple sandals on the steep rocky ground. Getting enough drinking water to the site of the fire is crucial but often difficult. And yet despite all this, time and time again this amazing team succeeds in extinguishing the fire.

Read an account of fighting a fire on Arunachala

The results: How the Forest responds
While tree planting has been a great success, and it gives us immense pleasure to see the young sapling growing steadily, all these efforts are dwarfed the natural re-growth across the entire Hill in the years since the fire has been stopped. We are reminded how efficiently and dramatically nature will recover if only given the chance.