Zimbabwe — Monday, August 31 was just a normal day for people of Mareke and Mandaza villages in Chishawasha on the outskirts of Harare.
Like any normal day, some were tilling land while others were digging for mice, others drinking home-brewed beer, women doing laundry and children playing.
One of the Mareke villagers, a jovial Mrs Veronica Chiriga was busy with her domestic chores and expected her son Blessing to come back from Harare that afternoon.
But all the joy, just like dew on a leaf was soon to evaporate. She heard the news that her son had died after being caught up in a veld fire 10km from their homestead.
“I wish I had told Blessing not to come from Harare that day maybe he could still be alive. Maybe this could have not happened if he had come yesterday or tomorrow,” lamented the tearful Mrs Chiriga, failing to stomach the circumstances surrounding her 25-year-old son’s death.
If she was in control of the world, the bereaved mother would turn back the hands of time, and stop the clocks a day before the hellish fire killed her son, Blessing.
But all the thoughts remain a wish that will never come true, as fate chose otherwise and decided to end Blessing’s life by “handing him a raging blaze of fire”, which quenched its thirst by ending the young man’s life in a horrific way one could imagine.
If he were alive, Blessing would have told his mother of the excruciating pain he went through in the “devilish” fire but only his grave tells the sad story of the end of the pain and agony his youthful flesh could not stomach on the fateful day.
Three other families from Mandaza village also had their homes burnt with the five occupants sustaining facial and hand injuries.
The injured four women and one man were rushed to Parirenyatwa Hospital for treatment.
The veld fire swept the area on Monday as the police and Government officials warned the public against the indiscriminate lighting of fires and stressed the need for proper fireguards.
Villagers seemed unmoved by the fire as it continued to burn. They did not move a finger to put out the fire and neither did they attempt to dig fireguards. They said they were waiting for their local authority to put out the fire.
Veld fires have so far destroyed over 46 000 hectares of land and vegetation from the 29 incidents reported.
Despite several warnings from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Meteorological Services Department, many people are still starting fires, which have resulted in the loss of innocent lives and the destruction of vegetation.
The uncontrolled vicious blazes are the most widespread ecological disturbances in Zimbabwe and are a major problem in winter and before the onset of the rains.
Farmers clearing land for the next cropping season are the major culprits who usually start veld fires in communal areas, as they prefer to burn foliage in the evening and leave them untended.
Burning cigarette stubs carelessly thrown out of moving vehicles by drivers or passengers can also ignite veld fires. While there are environmental laws, many farmers seem not to be aware of them, and in cases they know, choose to ignore.
The Forest Act of 1996 forbids people from burning, growing or standing vegetation on any land without prior notice to the occupants of all adjourning land and the police. The Act further stipulates that in the event that one is found guilty in a court of law, the accused should be liable of either paying a fine or imprisonment. The year 2007 saw several laws being passed which have a bearing on the environment. Most of the laws came in the form of statutory instruments, which were passed in the first half of the year.
According to the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, several statutory instruments were passed in terms of the Environmental Management Act during the course of the year.
Section 140 of the Act empowers the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources to make regulations specifically regulating issues covered by the Act. This is necessary because the Act is a framework law, which cannot be expected to cover all relevant details of all environmental issues in Zimbabwe.
The regulations also refer to the aspect of fire prevention. Every landowner is obliged to put in place fire prevention measures on his land.
“Between 31 July and 31 December of each year, no person shall light a fire outside residential or commercial premises. Every landowner is obliged to extinguish any fire on his premises.
“Any person within the vicinity of any fire is obliged to extinguish the fire and failure to do so results in a fine or imprisonment for one year with labour or both. The penalty for lighting a fire outside premises during the stipulated period is a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or both,” said the environment law association.
It further says the fire prevention regulations are clearly meant to contain veld fires, which have become a scourge of the environment in Zimbabwe during the dry season, hence, the stipulation that no fires should be lit between July and December.
It is very difficult to detect the offenders who cause these veld fires and it is therefore important that the law makes it obligatory on anyone in the vicinity of such fires to take measures to put out the fire.
Veld fires can, however, be dangerous and people would need some training on how to handle such fires and equipment to use in the process, further explains the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association.
“The Agency would be encouraged to work with groups like Environmental sub-committees set up at ward level in terms of Section 61 of the Rural District Councils Act (Chapter 29:13) to disseminate information about control of veld fires having focal points for such activities on the ground. The containment of such veld fires requires the participation of all stakeholders in ensuring that such fires are not started as it is easier to avoid starting them rather than extinguishing them. Veld fires should be the concern of everyone because they not only destroy people’s property, but they also destroy wildlife and vegetation, and pastures for cattle and wildlife in the dry season,” adds the association.
Police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said the starting of fire constitutes a serious offence.
“It becomes a serious offence when people die and houses are burnt like this. Serious charges like arson may be preferred against offenders,” he said.
The senior police spokesperson said there should be sufficient manpower to control fires from town, district and community level Director of Civil Protection Unit Mr Madzudzo Pawadyira said it was important for people to put fireguards to prevent loss of life and property.
“The best way is to have firebreaks that are constructed in collaboration with EMA and fire brigades,” he said. He also said while fire control was the responsibility of local authorities, most municipalities were inadequately equipped to deal with them.
“The issue of fires is basically an EMA issue though fire brigades play a central role. The preparedness of local authorities is, however, a bit compromised,” he said.
During a visit to victims of the veld fire in Chishawasha this week, Environment and Natural Resources Management Minister Francis Nhema said Government would introduce stiffer penalties for those caught indiscriminately starting fires.
“It is criminal to start fires indiscriminately and it seems fines and jail terms currently in place are not deterrent enough. “We have always said citizens should not start fires before informing police and neighbours but it seems our message is falling on deaf ears,” he said.
He accused the Chishawasha community of negligence and irresponsible behaviour following the fire that villagers apparently did not even attempt to fight.
The Goromonzi municipality, under which Chisha-washa falls, had also not yet responded to the inferno. Minister Nhema urged the police and local authorities to investigate and find the culprit who started the fire and so that justice prevailed.
But locals are of the strong belief that a smouldering cigarette butt or hunters started the fire. During his tour Minister Nhema met the Shoveni family, which was injured while trying to remove property from their thatched house.
The fire also destroyed gum plantations at local primary and secondary schools while vast livestock grazing lands were wiped out.