Bush Fires a Real Threat

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By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK Uncontrolled bush fires are a serious problem in Namibia particularly during the present dry winter months when they are fuelled by dry vegetation and strong winds. Every year, between 3,5 million and 7 million hectares of grazing land is destroyed. Official data indicates the regions worst affected by these infernos are: Caprivi, Kavango, Otjozondjupa, Omaheke, Omusati, Kunene, Oshikoto and Khomas. A recent fire incident involved 16 farms in the Dordabis area where the blaze swept through at least 40 000 hectares of grazing land, killing a lot of livestock and game. Therefore, not only was grazing land negatively affected, but also the game and livestock on these farms. The worry on most farmers’ minds right now is that if the rainy season comes late, they would have to wait longer for nature and existing wildlife to restock itself. In Caprivi, the latest such fire was recorded on June 8 this year. It started in the Muyako area and there are concerns that more fires are likely to come as the fire season only ends around December. The large inferno fired up by an abundance of dry vegetation and unharvested crops raging for six days in the three constituencies of Katima Rural, Sibbinda and Linyanti in the Caprivi Region, burnt 500 000 hectares of grazing and crop fields. At the time, Dennis Sikabongo, the District Forestry Officer said the fire was a serious blow to the region’s food security. The region was still recovering from successive droughts. “It is a big fire that started in the Muyako area,” said Sikabongo. At present, the Khomas Hochland mountains are also experiencing veldt fires and the city municipality’s emergency services division has been requested to assist with “grass beaters” to extinguish the fire. By the look of things uncontrolled fires have become a serious concern for both communal and commercial farmers and calls are being made for stricter law enforcement and policy by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. A part-time farmer in the Otjozondjupa Region Alex Meroro said most of the fires are caused by poor management or lack of skills and methods used by framers to control it. “Local communities must know how to use fire in a controlled way when doing bush encroachment, for instance. They must have a plan and strategies in place in case the fire spreads uncontrollably,” explained Meroro, adding that more educational campaigns and workshops are needed at grassroots level for a more integrated approach. A general perception is that most veldt fires are caused by negligence and recklessness of some people who do not stamp out cigarette butts properly or leave fire unattended. “Both chief headmen and the community must be well informed about the dangers of uncontrolled veldt fires and always be on the alert,” added Meroro. The reason why it takes so long to extinguish burning forests is the lack of proper equipment in a specific area. In most cases, members of the National Defence Force are called in to assist. Although there is a negative side to forest fires in the country, there is also a positive side. Forest fires contribute to “enhanced grass production and better quality grass for grazing and thatching material,” said Joseph Hailwa, the Director of Forestry at the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry at last month’s launch of the National Forest/Veldt Fire Management Campaign. He went on to say: “Fire is used to clean fields, control bush encroachment, facilitate hunting, enhance germination of some plants and kill insects.” However, since uncontrolled veldt fires can cause destruction to grassland, plants, loss of property, cattle and sometimes even human lives the Ministry of Agriculture saw the need to draft a policy over the past five years. “A comprehensive policy on this subject is needed because the occurrences and severity of the issue is putting excessive pressure on the sustainability of natural resources and there is a need for policy on both fire prevention and fire control,” explained Hailwa. At the same occasion, Minister of Agriculture, Water and Forestry Nickey Iyambo said the magnitude of uncontrolled forest fires and veldt fires calls for urgent inclusion in the country’s national policies and legislation. These include Article 26 and 95 of the Namibian Constitution, the Namibian Forestry Development Policy of 2001 and the National Land Policy. Most Namibians are not aware of these policies and legislation on forest and veldt fire management – which compromises on swift response to a fire outbreak. Other factors are the prevalent lack of skills, knowledge and resources to prevent fires and adopt an integrated fire management approach.