Combined effort needed to combat veld fires

Combined effort needed to combat veld fires

15 May 2012

published by

 Zimbabwe — Factmore Dzobo

MANY farmers have finished harvesting and some are busy clearing land in preparation for the forthcoming winter and summer seasons.

It is also at this time that the country faces the risk of veld fires that have over the past few years ravaged large tracts of forests, burnt down properties, killed animals, and in some cases, people. The veld fire season starts at the end of July and ends on 31 October. Over the past few years, veld fires have become one of the greatest enemies facing communities as they inflict damage on fragile ecosystems, and also result in loss of property.

Although veld fires can be triggered by a tiny flame such as a cigarette stub or a smouldering log left unattended, their impact can result in loss of human life or millions of dollars worth of natural resources and property.

“This time of the year so many fires are caused by people who make fires on the roadside to warm themselves up from the cold, such small fires often grow into veld fires. People are now clearing their land at this time of the season preparing it for the next farming season, hence some cases of careless use of fire are high. We need to avoid the fire mishaps that occurred last year,” said Mrs Nobuhle Ndlovu, a peri-urban farmer in Bulawayo.

The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has just launched anti-veld fire campaigns in print and electronic media to raise awareness to help curb veld fires.

According to EMA statistics, more than 713 770 hectares of land were destroyed by veld fires last year, a decrease from the previous year’s 1 152 413 hectares. Fewer lives were lost last year compared to 25 lost in the 2010 fire season.

The 2011 fire season recorded a 38 percent reduction in fire incidences compared with the year 2010, according to EMA. Five people died through veld fires last year compared to 25 lives lost in the 2010 fire season.

“All the deaths were due to attempts to put out fires,” said EMA.

“The victims included a 37-year-old man, a five-year-old boy, a 70-year-old woman, a 63-year-old man and a 99-year-old woman. In 2011, a total of 30 national fire week launches and 279 fire awareness meetings were held.”

Additional strategies included the pilot fireguard project in 15 districts where fireguards with a cumulative stretch of 615km were constructed.

“Intensive law enforcement resulted in the issuing of 240 tickets, 78 dockets were opened with a total of 24 cases receiving final judgment. Traditional courts handled 23 cases of veld fires. The most severe judgments were six months’ imprisonment from court proceedings and a beast from the traditional cases.”

According to Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007, “no person is allowed to light a fire outside residential and commercial premises during the period of 31 July to October of each year”.

Despite the presence of legislation and awareness campaigns, cases of uncontrolled fires continue to happen.

“It is incumbent to every Zimbabwean to guard against veld fires. With the help of communities, ZRP and the EMA, veld fires can be reduced for this coming fire season. There should be more intensive law enforcement measures that enforce deterrent measures to offenders,” one Bulawayo resident said.

A game ranger based in Hwange, Mr Josphat Matshezu, said poachers and hunters were among people who start fires in a bid to trap animals.

“Poachers and hunters are very reckless people who trap animals using fire and they make fires during the night to warm themselves, but leave the fires burning,” he said.

Over the past two years, many lives were lost, most of them on the outskirts of Bulawayo after the victims were engulfed by raging bush fires. In one case, property worth thousands of United States dollars was lost in an inferno in Matabeleland South near Debshan Ranch last year, after a veld fire encroached on people’s homesteads.

Considering the continued occurrence of uncontrolled fires, the Government and EMA should come up with more plans and strategies in educating the communities of the dangers and effects of veld fires on the environment.

The general public must also contribute in the fight against veld fires by not only containing the fires they make, but also through taking action against those made by others. Under the environmental laws, any person who leaves a fire unattended and deliberately fails to extinguish it should be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of up to $5 000 per hectare of land destroyed.

On prosecution, EMA said fire-related prosecutions increased by 62 percent as enforcement of fire legislation intensified last year.

“Tickets for starting fires during the fire season increased by 800 percent from 30 tickets in 2010 to 240 tickets in 2011. Enforcement coupled with environmental education was remarkable resulting in a sharp decrease in deaths and veld fire casualties. In 2011, five lives were lost to fires compared to 25 lives that were lost in 2010.”

The agency said there was a need for the corporate sector to assist farmers with more fire fighting equipment such as fire beaters and knapsack sprayers. Also, traditional leaders and police should continue taking a leading role in veld fire issues and law enforcement.

“Stakeholder involvement needs to be heightened. The local authorities, environment committees and environment sub-committees should be encouraged to continue managing fires. Biomass on road servitudes has to be cleared to avoid roadside fires,” EMA said.

Recently, the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Management, Francis Nhema said all stakeholders should strategise formation of fire-fighting teams as well as make fireguards.

“Stakeholders, including villagers, should participate as a team in fire-fighting and this will reduce loss of wildlife and protect our environment,” said Minister Nhema.

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