Veld fires and how to prevent them

Veld fires and how to prevent them 

10 November 2011

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Namibia — THE PROBLEM of veld fires in Namibia has reached alarming proportions and it is time for our Government to take appropriate measures to arrest the situation. The veld fires are really a big problem for the whole country and its economy, more so for farming communities and other businesses.

Both the State, private sector and individual citizens are suffering from the effects of veld fires.

Recently, the Etosha National Park was badly damaged by veld fires. As a result of this veld fire in Etosha, a number of animals perished. This mortalities, according to the Minister of Environment and Tourism, included 25 black rhinoceros, 5 white rhinoceros, 11 elephants, 60 giraffes, 30 kudus, and 3 lions. There is no guarantee that these were the only wild animals which perished.

Furthermore, according to the Minister, the burnt area in Etosha is in extent approximately 300 000 hectares. It is suspected that the fire started on Farm Success as a result of charcoal production on that farm.

This fire spread through a number of other farms such as Streben, Lyn Plaas, Mara and Vrede before it entered Etosha National Park. A lot of fauna and flora was destroyed both on those farms and in Etosha National Park.

The disturbing issue is that the suspected culprits are known but nothing has been done to them.

Communal areas in Erongo Region, Omaheke Region, etc., also suffered heavy losses from the veld fires. Farms in Otjozondjupa and Omaheke regions recently were badly affected by veld fires. My own farm which borders with communal area was at some point put on fire by some people from that communal area who were burning fires to prepare fencing poles, and they let the fire to get out of control. Those people are known and again, no action was taken against them. Other fires were also in Namib Naukluft Park.

Since many people in many parts of the country lost their properties and animals as the result of veld fires, the Government is forced to feed these people by providing food to the affected areas.

The causes of veld fires can be either natural or human activities such as:
a) Natural causes of veld fires are mostly lightning strikes. This is impossible to control or prevent:

b) Human behaviour. This can either be caused by the reckless throwing away of burning items such as cigarettes, matches etc. It can also be as a result of burning charcoal, poles and other fencing materials and then recklessly failing to take proper care of the fire. Others can also be caused by hunters who use fire in the process of hunting wild animals.

Other culprits can be those who deliberately light fires to eliminate excessive vegetation. Throwing away empty bottles in the environment can also be dangerous because such bottles can become hot during hot temperatures and ignite the grass and vegetation, etc. The human behaviour becomes even more dangerous when there is a build-up of fuel load in grass and vegetation biomass due to heavy rains during the previous rainy season.

It is therefore necessary to look at these and other causes of veld fires and put preventative measures in place. Human behaviour can, indeed, be controlled if effective preventative measures are put in place. Therefore, I would like to congratulate the Ministry of Environment and Tourism which has adopted the following adaptive and mitigating procedures:

1. Implementation of controlled burning programmes to reduce the grass biomass before the onset of the dry season in the Etosha National Park.

2. Strengthening and improving the capacity of field staff to deal with hot large areas:

3. Increasing research and monitoring activities with regard to fire management.

4. Improving and updating fire-fighting equipment for field staff to adequately manage and control unplanned fires.

This as it may be, there is still a need to go further than the measures enumerated above. For example:

1 Existing laws should be reviewed and strengthened so as not to allow those who are culprits in causing veld fires to go unpunished as is the case now.

2. Standards and conditions must be developed that have to be followed strictly by those who are intending to have the business of charcoal burning and no one should be allowed to get into that business until he/she meets the standards and conditions set.

3. Charcoal should be burnt only in places or on premises that have been thoroughly inspected by the Government and that have met the required standards and conditions (Just for example, those who want to open hospitals and clinics. You cannot open a hospital under a tree. You are expected to meet certain standards. This must also apply to charcoal burners).

4. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism is aware of internationally accepted best practices which are not only helpful in preventing fires but are also aimed at safeguarding and protecting the environment – these must be adopted and followed.
The Minister of Environment and Tourism has alluded to these practices already:
5. No burning of charcoal must be allowed in the forest or unauthorized premises or place.

6. Likewise fencing material should never be treated with fire in the forest except at a place properly designated for such activity and also meeting some set standards and conditions.

7.Strict conditions and measures must be put in place for those who want to burn and reduce the grass biomass or vegetation. Although these controlled burning programmes might be necessary, they are highly dangerous too because they may get out of control and cause veld fires:

8. No one should be allowed to use fire in the process of hunting wild animals:
Finally, farms and businesses that operate in fire-prone areas must take serious remedial measures to minimize the effect of fire. Such remedial measures can include but not BE limited to the following:

a) Buying fire-fighting equipment to be used to suppress and extinguish fire when such veld fires occurs:

b) Removing grass biomass and vegetation before the onset of the dry season from boundaries of farms and properties from where fire might spread into such farms and properties so as to keep fire away etc.

I would also like to suggest that the best way to tackle this problem is for the relevant Ministry (the Ministry of Environment and Tourism) to organize a workshop of stakeholders to look seriously at these problems and come out with proper and appropriate solutions and recommendations, including suggestions aimed at reviewing the law to make it even more strict so that culprits are punished accordingly.

Appropriate and timely punishment of offenders will deter others from doing the same. This can only be done in a well organized manner by the line Ministry.

As the situation is now, those who cause these disasters are not punished accordingly, like those who caused the fire at Etosha National Park, while it is known where the fire originated from.

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