Wildfire fight needs long-term solution

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020 00:00 |
Firefighters put out fire on Mt Kilimanjaro. BELOW: Francis Omolo Liech, Secretary-General, Kenya National Fire Brigades Association. Photo/COURTESY

Milliam Murigi @millymur1

For a long time, the East Africa region has been using fire to prepare land for agricultural, hunting, and other land management activities. This has contributed to the diversity of the savannah.

However, in the recent past, our national parks and game reserves have been experiencing recurrent fires, a trend  now worrying fire experts and citizens. 

With the latest case being Tsavo National Park and the Kilimanjaro, where over the past few months, huge swathes of the park have been on fire. 

Though some wildfires are started naturally, chiefly by lightning, the rest are started by humans, either accidentally or through arson says Francis Omolo Liech, Secretary-General, Kenya National Fire Brigades Association (Kenfiba).

“Carelessness is one of the causes of wildfires. This happens when passersby or workers around parks or forest who smoke throw cigarette butts thinking they have put them out.

However, what we, fire experts, call smouldering may start building around these butts and ignite dry grasses around it, in turn, causing a huge fire,” he says.

He adds that climate change is also a major contributor to wildfires.  “Extreme weather conditions have amplified number and intensity of wildfires in the world.

This has caused increasing apprehension concerning negative impacts on the environment and human welfare,” Omolo says.

According to Omolo, the annual area burnt is estimated to be 366 hectares globally.

However, many ecosystems are becoming increasingly vulnerable due to a combination of inadequate land and fire management practices (Kenya included) as well as increased human encroachment of formerly remote and unpopulated areas. 

“In recent decades this intricate balance between people, fire and natural environment has been upset in most countries due to population growth, and unsustainable land management practices,” he says.

Though wildfires are important to the sustainability of grassland ecosystems, they also have some consequences because they can lead to vegetation degradation and related biodiversity loss resulting in immediate and long term negative impacts on livelihoods and economy at community and national level.

Fire can be very damaging to natural areas too. When fires burn too hot the land becomes scorched, plants may struggle to regrow, negatively impacting wildlife and the riparian areas. 

“All fires have the potential to become dangerous to property and life. However, prescribed, or controlled burns are good since they are planned extensively and performed with tight safety parameters,” he states.

He adds that controlled forest fires are natural and necessary part of the ecosystem because they are used to promote ecological health and prevent larger, more damaging uncontrolled fires.

Such burns can also turn dead trees and decaying plant matters into ashes, and nutrients return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation.

And since uncontrolled fire respect no boundaries, he says there is a need for uniform policies and programmes in East Africa to reduce uncontrolled fire and related negative impacts.  

Still unprepared 

Omolo says, unfortunately, Kenya has not given priority mechanisms to deal with wildfires or any kind of fire.

Therefore, Kenfiba has suggested that to manage wildfires, firefighting helicopters need to be bought with enough firefighters and on that a fire arson board be formed.

“In 2009, Kenfiba supported by other stakeholders came up with a draft policy for fire management, which will address the issue of both wildfires and structural fires. Unfortunately, it has not been implemented.

We are still appealing to the government to speed up this process,” he adds.

Elizabeth Wathuti, an environmentalist insists that wildfires should be treated as an emergency.

“We need long-term solutions to wild fires. We have been treating the symptoms and not the root causes.

Wildfires are climate fires and we need more than words to save our planet and humanity!

We need bold climate action. Sometimes the wildfires will take days or weeks without urgent response and in the process we lose acres of vegetation cover.

During this time, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising hence fuelling climate change.

Wildfires ought to be treated as an emergency and this approach has to be beyond extinguishing the fires, it also has to be about the systems and how prepared we are to deal with the next disasters,“ she says.

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