Zimbabwe — The last couple of years have seen the country losing substantial environmental goods and services owing to the spread of uncontrolled veld fires. The implications of the uncontrolled veld fires are that biodiversity has been lost as well as property. To minimise the risks arising from veld fires, the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Management, Hon. Francis Nhema, initiated the National Fire Strategy which seeks to protect the environment through limiting the damage emanating from veld fires as well as raising awareness on veld fires and their environmental implications. The National Fire Strategy seeks to ameliorate the risks arising from fires as well as promoting a proactive attitude for dealing with threats. A statutory instrument on Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystem protection regulations has also been put forward to provide guidelines with regard to fire management. The regulations stipulate the fire season (July-onset of the rainy season), pre-suppression, suppression and post-suppression measures. What are veld fires? These are blazes that get out of control and become wild, and in the process destroy extensive tracts of forests, grasslands, animals, people and their properties. Fire, as part of natural process, has a positive role in the vegetation structure and composition, and helps recycle nutrients contained in old and dead trees. There is, however, concern that the frequency, extent and pattern of burning are increasing due to human activities. It is a fact that the damage from these fires has grown to outweigh the benefits of fire on the ecosystem. Frequent burning has implication on carbon stocks and emissions, wildlife habitat, human health and life as well as livelihoods. Statutorily, in Zimbabwe no person is allowed to light a fire outside residential and commercial premises during the period July 31 to October 31 of each year. Causes of fires There are several factors that cause veld fires but most are human ignitions resulting from: l Reckless disposal of lit cigarette stubs. l Smoking out of bees for honey harvesting. l Lighting fires at road servitudes whist waiting for early morning buses. l Land clearing. l Hunting. l Deliberate lighting of fires/arson. l Children playing with matches. l Improper household ash disposal. Effects of veld fires Veld fires lead to severe environmental degradation. More specifically, veld fires reduce land cover thus exposing the land to agents of accelerated soil erosion, changes in the hydrological cycle, increase in overland flow or surface run-off and modifications in various ecological processes. Soil erosion leads to the saltation of rivers and dams thus reducing their water carrying capacity. This is likely to induce floods in low-lying areas. In Zimbabwe, the year 2009 experienced a total of 7 409 fire incidences that led to a destruction of 950 905 hectares of land. On the other hand, in the year 2010 alone, 25 lives were lost from veld fires while 20 elephants were killed at Debshan Farm in Shangani, Insiza District. A total of 9 361 fire incidences were experienced countrywide leading to 1 152 413,1ha being lost which was 21,2 percent higher than that of 2009. These marauding veld fires also gutted Matopos National Museum and Matopos Motel down. The damages and losses clearly show the extent to which veld fires can be destructive. Veld fires destroy plantations, crops and pastures. In Zimbabwe, it is now commonly agreed that veld fires are a single significant threat to national economic recovery plans as they are destroying not only pastures necessary for the restocking exercise, but they are also destroying foreign currency generation plantations. Food security may be compromised as the last few years have seen fires burning wheat farms, maize fields among other valuables. Veld fires and stakeholders Each person or institution has a role to play in the fight against veld fires and the following can be of importance to prevent veld fires, destruction of the environment as well as loss of life and property. Schoolchildren In the event that schoolchildren come across fire: l Quickly report the incident to any nearby adult person. l Do not attempt to cross over fire, “crossing over fire may result in fatalities”. l Do not try to extinguish a veld fire on your own l Move away from the veld fire and never ever try to climb trees in the direction of a veld fire Bus passengers Travelling can at times be done during the odd hours when the weather is very cold especially in the rural areas. These conditions make passengers make a fire at the bus stop for warmth. Therefore, before leaving: l Make sure you completely extinguish the fire before leaving. l Make sure all the glowing splints and burning coal are completely extinguished using water. l Put on warm clothes because history has shown that most road fires are left unattended. Bee smokers Use other methods of extracting honey, which does not involve use of fire. Seek advice from Forestry Commission. Motorists l Put off cigarette stubs and use ashtrays. l Assist in fire fighting and always travel with a fire extinguisher. l Service car electrical and mechanical systems to avoid sparks which can cause veld fires Traditional leaders l Have fire-fighting teams to put off uncontrolled veld fires in your areas of jurisdiction. l Carry out fire awareness campaigns throughout the fire season. l Use cultural ways of punishing those who cause veld fires. Rural District Councils l Establish an environmental committee to oversee environmental issues. l Establish environmental sub-committees that are chaired by a councillor in a given ward or wards. l Appoint an environmental monitor in the district in conjunction with EMA. l Ensure that there are fire fighting committees in these various wards. l Report all veld fire incidences within seven working days to EMA or ZRP. Farmers/Property owners Fire prevention is the best option to minimise risks associated with veld fires. This can be achieved through establishment and maintenance of fireguards. Fireguards are designed to provide access and a safe environment for the fire fighting teams to implement controlled burning and effectively manage wildfires. The existing roads and tracks also provide the foundation to implement fire management activities. Construct standard fireguards that are at least 9m wide on boundaries and internal fireguards that should be at least 4,5m wide. Fireguards can be constructed by ploughing using ox-drawn ploughs or tractors, disking and hoeing. Always inspect your fireguards to make sure that they are free of any material that burns. Fireguards are important because they break fire by removing the fuel load from the fire triangle. Ensure that fire-fighting equipment is in place, bowsers/knapsack sprayers filled with water during the fire season. Report all fire incidences to the nearest ZRP or EMA offices within seven working days. Always listen to the weather personnel on the fire danger index.