Meet Mohammed Shihab: The Malayali IAS officer that helped deal with Dzukou Valley forest fire

Kohima Deputy Commissioner Mohammed Ali Shihab led the two-week-long forest fire fighting operation at the Dzukou Valley forest fire, which was first reported on December 29, 2020
Meet Mohammed Shihab: The Malayali IAS officer that helped deal with Dzukou Valley forest fire
Kohima Deputy Commissioner Mohammed Ali Shihab along with the members of the forest fire fighting operation in Dzukou Valley

After a long and tiring effort by the Indian Air Force and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the forest fires in Dzukou Valley were brought under control on Monday. The fire was first reported during an inspection ahead of the Nagaland Governor’s visit to the area on December 29.

From inside the Indian Air Force's Mi-17 V5 helicopter used for dousing the forest fire in Dzukou Valley.
From inside the Indian Air Force's Mi-17 V5 helicopter used for dousing the forest fire in Dzukou Valley.

“The fire started on December 29 and we extinguished it on Monday,” said Mohammed Ali Shihab, Deputy Commissioner of Kohima, who led the operation. He added that on January 1, the Indian Air Force deployed four Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Haryana and West Bengal to fight the forest fire. Shihab, who is a 2011 batch IAS officer, hails from Malappuram District of Kerala.

However, the biggest challenge was getting water needed for dousing the flames. “Kohima does not have water at this time of the year since it is a dry season. The helicopters flew to Dimapur to get water which takes about an hour both ways,” Shihab said. The helicopter carried water in Bambi buckets, which has a capacity of 3,500 litres. He informed the four helicopters were continuously pouring water in one part of the valley. “The helicopters used nearly 125,000 litres. The helicopters took a total of 90 shuttles and completed nearly 100 hours of flying,” he said, adding that the IAF landed at the remote Dzukou Valley helipad for the very first time.

Shihab said that apart from the four helicopters, one C130 aircraft was used to bring in NDRF troops from West Bengal. It was difficult for the two NDRF teams to reach the fire zone due to the risky terrain and turbulent winds. “Nature threw many challenges at us during the operation. Due to the turbulent wind, it wasn’t easy even for helicopters to drop water. The water was evaporating quickly due to the rising temperature from the fire and the strong winds. If the helicopter is unable to drop water at the exact zone, it has little effect on the flames,” he said.

The NDRF teams, forest teams, police teams and community volunteers took part in a forest fire line-exercise, which takes place to prevent forest fire from spreading to other parts of the forest or in this case, the valley. Shihab said that the forest has a dense bamboo population. It took the combined efforts of the Indian Air Force, the NDRF teams, the district administration, district police officials, forest officials and the local community in making it a successful operation.

There is a dispute between Nagaland and Manipur regarding a huge section of the valley. Both states have been having border disputes for a very long time. These border disputes are affecting the Dzukou valley and Tungjoy village. In 2018, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh told the State Assembly that Manipur and Nagaland would list a permanent solution to the border dispute.

Dzukou Valley is located on the states’ border. The valley is well known for its natural environment, rare and endangered species of flora and fauna. The famous Dzukou Lily is found only here along with a wide variety of rare and exotic flowers. This valley has faced forest fires regularly and the high-speed winds and inaccessible terrains make it difficult to fight forest fires.

In the past, Dzukou valley has seen many forest fires and two of them have destroyed nearly 5,000 hectares of land. India’s first major forest fire took place in Almora district of Uttarakhand between February and May of 2016. Around 1,600 forest fires were brought under control by May 2016. According to reports, the fires initially started on February 2, 2016, but went unnoticed due to the outrage of President's rule in the State. Without any immediate action, the fire spread throughout the forest. The state lost 4,538 hectares of land in the fire and seven people lost their lives. The blame for the forest fire was put on local people and timber companies.

The second major forest fire in India took place in Karnataka’s Bandipur National Park in February 2019. The fires broke out in the tiger reserve on February 21 and it destroyed 4,419 hectares of land, killing smaller mammals, reptiles and slow-moving animals died. Plenty of trees were destroyed in the forest fire. The forest officials arrested two shepherds for setting ablaze the forest fearing tiger attacks. It was the NDRF and the Indian Air Force Mi-17 V5 helicopters that helped control both forest fires.

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