How India's 'tree hugger' is tackling forest fires

Ela Smetacek hugging a tree Image copyright Ela Smetacek

When more than 1,900 hectares of forest in India's northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand were destroyed by fires, one social media user took to Facebook to demand action from the government.

On Friday Ela Smetacek, who is a footwear designer and self-described "tree hugger", posted a gallery of photos on her Facebook page calling the fires "a national emergency". She wrote that several forests in Uttarakhand had been burning for days with "no media coverage whatsoever" and demanded that troops were sent to control the blazes. The fires began weeks ago, but intensified in recent days with more than 400 burning simultaneously at one point.

Ela told Trending: "I grew up on a conserve in the hills Uttarakhand. My grandfather, who was from the Czech Republic, moved to India during World War Two, and used his background in forest conservation to set up our family reserve here 75 years ago. These forests and mountains are in my blood."

Her post has been shared more than 59,000 times. Ela also set up a Facebook group for the campaign called "Uttarakhand Burning Silently" which now has almost 6,000 likes. The campaign also spread to Twitter, with hundreds of people, including the Bollywood actress and producer Dia Mirza, using the hashtags #UttarakhandFires and #UttarakhandBurning.

"Young people in India care passionately about the environment, and social media is the best way that we can spread our message. Our initiative has had support from all over the world," Ela said.

Image copyright STR/AFP/Getty
Image caption More than 1,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed by the fires of Uttarakhand

Two days after Ela's Facebook post, the Indian air force deployed helicopters to help douse the flames, although low visibility caused by smoke was said to have limited their deployment. The efforts seems to be working, as the National Disaster Relief Force, who are co-ordinating the fire-fighting effort, says that satellite imagery shows around 70% of the flames have been put out.

The cause of the fires are a point of debate. Ela says that local residents are starting fires so that dead trees can be sold into the timber industry. But that's an idea that's been denied by some environmentalists who say that the recent heatwave in the region and a high number of Chir pine trees (which are prone to catching fire) could be behind the fires. The fires come as India suffers one of its worst droughts in years, with the government saying that around 330 million are now affected by water shortages.

Blog by Kate Lamble and Megha Mohan

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