Uganda — A series of bush fires have spread through many parts of the northern region causing loss of life and property in the current dry season.
So far this year, nine people have died and many items destroyed. Police has said that those who start bush fires shall be charged with arson if arrested.
On Tuesday afternoon, a bushfire killed an elderly woman, Pirijina Akullu, 65, and six children including a set of twins at Ojile village in Pajule sub-county, Pader district. They had gone to harvest pigeon peas (Lapena) from the garden for her daughter, Rose Adong.
Local leaders say more than half of the bushes in Acholi have already been burnt. One woman was burnt to death in Paimol sub county while collecting grass for thatching her hut and another in Lapono sub-county last week while hunting for edible rats.
Kitgum registered one death in Lokung sub county on Christmas Eve. Gulu and Amuru districts have not yet recorded any death from bush fires.
According to Rose Latoo, Woman LCV Councillor for Pajule and Lapul sub-counties, many gardens have been destroyed by fires, setting a risk of famine.
Yet we hear that relief food distribution by World Food Program and other humanitarian agencies will stop soon, she said.
The councillor called on district leaders to pass ordinances and by-laws to deal with those who set bush fires. But, she lamented, those who start bush fires run away, making it difficult to trace them.
John Komakech Ogwok, the district chairperson of Kitgum, explained that the problem is that people traditionally use fire to burn the tall grass while hunting for edible rats and other wild animals. Others want to clear the bush around their homesteads but end up failing to control the fires which spread to wider areas.
There are some internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are burning thatching grass because they dont want to return to their villages. They think they would be excused from returning. But that is sabotage, he explained.
Other fires, he added, are connected to the ongoing rampant land disputes in the return areas. Some people want to use fire because someone has settled on a disputed land.
He adds that other bush fires are accidentally caused by children while playing with fire.
The problem is we have huge chunks of thick grasslands because the LRA insurgency confined people in IDP camps for over 20 years now. This also increased the population of wild animals which people go to hunt.
Ogwok complained that the Police is not helping much.
We leaders have made it clear that people must not burn grass, but the Police are not helping us. I think Police also needs to be sensitised.
In Kitgum last year, ten people were arrested in connection with bush fires but the police did not prosecute them. This would have sent a warning to the rest. This year, we have so far arrested seven people linked to bush fires at Paloga and Agoro sub counties, but police has still not prosecuted them.
The Regional Police Commander, P.K Arinaitwe, said Police is committed to the law and whoever is arrested will be charged with arson. But investigations take time.
But the challenge of bush fires cannot be left to the Police alone. Local leaders should sensitise the public and everybody should guard their land and report those who start fires, he said.
Pader woman MP, Franka Judith Akello said in the past, people used to set bush fires in the morning when the wind was low and it would not cause any harm.
But today, many have lost touch with traditional farming practices and bush fires are started anytime of the day even when the wind is strong.
According to the MP, as people leave the camps and return to their abandoned bushy homes, the incident of bush fires will also reduce.
She, however, expressed fear that rampant bush fires may slow down the return process.
She challenged fellow local leaders and environmentalists to sensitise people on the dangers of bush fires.