22 October 2010

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Namibia —  HUNDREDS of thousands of hectares of valuable grazing land in communal farming areas have been devoured by flames in the past months and some fires are still raging according to the latest satellite information.

One of the biggest veld fires is already in its 20th day in the Otjombinde Constituency of the Omaheke Region, and has already destroyed more than 200 000 hectares. According to reports the second half of the huge Eiseb block has also started to burn. An area measuring about 240 km in width and stretching over and area of about 200 km was already consumed by flames.

The fire that was caused by lightning is spreading fast and a variety of methods are being used to fight it. The community in the area, 60 NDF soldiers and staff from the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry are trying to stop the fire from spreading further. Although no human or stock lives have yet been lost, two NDF trucks caught fire last week while food and other items on the trucks burned to ashes but the trucks were luckily not damaged beyond repair.

“The area most heavily affected is the settlements of Talismanus where the fire started, Wingerbos, Epukiro and Otjombinde. The fire is still moving very fast due to strong winds. The response of the communities in the area was insufficient at the beginning so that three big fires started separately,” the Councillor of the Otjombinde Constituency, Mati Ndjoze lamented. He added that the second part of the settlement of Eiseb is now burning.

According to an e-mail sent out by Cheanell Kruger from the Mbelafarm in the Hochfeld area, “seven large farms have totally burnt down and it [the fire] is only coming back for more.” The fire started on Tuesday evening and while it looked as if it would be extinguished on Wednesday, it suddenly flared up again. A regional representative of the farming community, Helmut Förtsch, on Tuesday said the fire that broke out on the border of Steinhausen and Hochfeld looked like it was under control.

Meanwhile the executive manager of the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU), Sakkie Coetzee, said that fires on commercial farms have not been that many this year except in the area of Windhoek. About 20 000 hectares where destroyed around the capital. In fact, large tracts of communal farmland in the north -eastern and far north areas of the country are burnt. According to information obtained from the website of the Advanced Fire Information System (Afis) an area measuring 80 km² (8 000 hectares) have been burnt west of Fransfontein.

About 20 000 of hectares were also destroyed in the Kavango Region, of which about 7 000 extend into the Khaudum National Park. Similarly, big parts of the Caprivi Region, including the Bwabwata National Park were destroyed. According to statistics, most fires in Namibia occur in the areas of Tsumkwe, the Kavango, Ohangwena, Oshikoto and Caprivi Regions where most woodland and savannah vegetation occurs, rather than the west, which tends towards deserts vegetation. It is a known fact that 90% of fires are started by humans and the rest by other factors such as lightning.

The Caprivi Region is the most affected, as it is predominantly woodland and floodplain grasses. Human activity is the main cause of fires in this Region as people light fires to convert wooded areas into croplands to maintain grazing land. Recently Minister of Agriculture John Mutorwa was quoted as saying:

“Veld fires do not only affect biological diversity, but also threaten the food security of both humans and animals by destroying the important natural resources and costly infrastructure. It costs governments and development partners millions in re-investments after what is destroyed by fires, thereby delaying progress. “Undoubtedly, the effects of forest/veld fires do pose significant threats to the livelihood of people and to the national economy and development.”

According to experts, the focus should be on reducing the ignition of fires, mitigating the impact and using fire strategies like controlled burns which can be used as a management tool. Coetzee said that farmers should make sure that their farms are accessible and that reservoirs are full in case a fire should break out. Also, farmers should find out at their Farmers Union what type of action plan they have in place for when a fire breaks out.

One of the measures that can be put in place to mitigate veld fires is to see to it that firebreaks are maintained along farm borders. In case a fire breaks out on your farmland it will not easily spread to neighbouring farms and vice versa. One of the main contributors to veld fires in southern Africa is also the presence of alien plants. Alien plants contribute to less soil moisture and more fuel that can burn.

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