Namibia — Fires were commonplace in southern Africa long before people started to have a major impact on the land, but the growing numbers of rural people and their land use practices have increased the frequency and destructiveness of veld fires.
Today, roughly 15 per cent of Namibia’s northeastern regions burn every one to two years and most of the fires are man-made.
And this is the crux of the matter.
Fires are natural, they clear areas for fresh vegetation to grow, help to recycle nutrients and even stimulate the germination of some tree and shrub species.
However, trees need time to grow and when the fire frequency becomes too high, seedlings die before they have the chance to reach a more fire-resistant age.
Generally speaking, the younger the tree the more vulnerable it is to heat and fire damage.
The bark is not yet strong enough to protect the inner living tissue of the tree and the branches are not yet high enough above the ground to be out of reach.
Consequently, repeated fire damage either kills the tree directly or weakens it so that it becomes vulnerable to secondary attacks by fungi, parasites or insect attacks.
The loss of young trees will slowly destroy the forest even if the bigger ones survive the fires.
The spread and intensity of fires are influenced by many factors, like temperature, wind speed and the abundance of fuel.
In dry periods following wetter summers (like last year), fires occur also in southern Namibia since there is more grass than usual.
But mainly fires are concentrated in the northern regions where both population and vegetation densities are higher, and where open forests are interspersed with fire-prone grass and grazing areas.
Consequently, annual grass fires threaten not only the adjacent forests and their wildlife but also the lives and livelihoods of local people.
Among the many impacts of wildfires, one has gained increased attention.
In times of global warming, the release of carbon dioxide from veld fires contributes substantially to the greenhouse effect, especially when you consider that fires do not only occur in Namibia but also in many other countries.
The uncontrolled use of fire to clear farmland, to facilitate hunting and to encourage regeneration of preferred grass species such as grazing or thatching grass are considered to be major causes of frequent veld fires and related problems.
But from a local farmer’s perspective, fire may also be the most economical tool to do the job.
And even an ecologist would argue that fire is a natural factor in the savannah and dry forest ecosystems.
Instead of pursuing the unrealistic goal of a fire-free Namibia, we should therefore rather confront the challenge to develop safe and effective methods of fire utilisation such as controlled burnings of strips, patches and even larger areas to serve the interests of the people and their environment.