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‘Smoke was so thick’: Forest fires scorch Indian mountains amid heatwave

Hundreds of large fires have ravaged the hilly state of Uttarakhand in recent months, and experts warn worse could follow.

Nainital, India – On the evening of April 27, Madhavi Daruwala noticed the air around her housing complex in the northern Indian town of Nainital suddenly grow heavier with smoke.

“The smoke was so thick, it was burning our eyes. My daughter has asthma and she had to go back on her inhaler [to be able to breathe normally],” Daruwala told Al Jazeera.

A longtime resident of the scenic Himalayan town that is a popular tourist destination in the state of Uttarakhand, Daruwala knew immediately what had happened: The nearby forests and vegetation were on fire again.

At least 1,313 large fires have ravaged the hills of Uttarakhand since November – among the highest count in the country. Officials estimate the fires have already damaged nearly 1,100 hectares (about 2,718 acres) – about three times the size of New York’s Central Park –of forest land in the state.

Nainital residents say the frequency and intensity of the fires have worsened in recent years, and that the fires are reaching increasingly closer to human settlements.

That’s what happened that evening.

When she looked out her window, Daruwala saw a large flaming line of burning vegetation inching nearer to her apartment complex. “It came so close to our habitations that the [water] tank of one of the buildings got burned,” she said.

The panicked residents of the area quickly mobilised, beating down the fire while the forest department sent people to help them.

“We were lucky we could stop the fire from reaching us. Because it is not easy, you can’t simply throw a bucket of water on a burning tree. These are pine trees that secrete resin which is