Zimbabwe — Watched by groups of horrified neighbours in the rural neighbourhood, the screams of trapped toddlers rent the air. There were two children inside the hut – being roasted alive. Moreblessing and her cousin were playing outside in the afternoon sun at Proton Farm in Goromonzi North district, 55km east of Harare.
When a veld fire started by other children in a nearby field advanced towards their homestead the two five-year-olds ran inside the hut and locked themselves inside. Tragically, Moreblessing was burnt beyond recognition in the inferno while her cousin survived with first degree burns.
But as the grandmother to the two children, Ambuya Chirinda, says again and again to any ready listener: “Environmental protection requires collaborative effort, so let us teach our children well that we must never play with fire. It’s a dangerous game. And, most importantly, adults should be on alert and never leave children using fire willy-nilly.”
The widespread practice of using fire to clear fields, forests and bush continues to be one of the most incendiary issues in Zimbabwe today, causing conflict within communities.
Recently Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko announced that there will be mandatory custodial sentences for convicted arsonists who start veld fires.
The Environmental Management Agency’s environmental education and publicity manager Steady Kangata said his agency is committed to avoid disasters as the one above by ensuring that communities – both urban and rural – are empowered to manage their natural resources, contribute towards environmental protection by adopting veld fire prevention and preparedness measures.
So far this year 1 436 legally binding orders in terms of the Environmental Management Act (Chapter 20:27) were served on land owners and users to construct fireguards at their properties.
The number of tickets issued to fire offenders was 237 while 199 dockets were opened nationwide. Traditional leaders also enforced fire regulations. This resulted in 29 cases being tried by traditional leaders compared to only eight from 2013.
“Our natural habitat is under threat from veld fires,” says Kangata, adding: “Together we have the potential to make a difference and let us start to act now. Never leave for tomorrow that which we can do today.”
The phenomenon of veld fires is widespread, the consequences for flora and fauna severe, and the costs Government incurs through monitoring are quite challenging.
According to ministry figures, in 2009, 950 905 hectares were lost to veld fires throughout the country with 10 deaths recorded. In 2010 the figure increased to 1 152 413ha accompanied by 25 deaths while last year the area affected declined to 713 770ha with five fatalities.
This could be attributed to the massive awareness campaigns carried out in 2010 as well as collaborative measures with traditional leaders, the police and the community at large.
The Forest Act (Chapter 19:05), Communal Forest Produce Act (Chapter 19:04), Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 as well as the National Fire Strategy and Implementation Plan are used in fire management.
These instruments provide a framework which states that there should be no fires started outside residential premises during the period July 31 to October 31 each year as this is the time when the weather and the condition of the vegetation are most conducive to the rapid spread of veld fires. Statutorily, the fire season starts on July 31 (Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 on EIA and Ecosystem protection regulations.)
The pre-suppression measures to be taken are also stated and these include the construction of at least 9-metre wide fireguard on both sides of a boundary fence, at least 4,5 metres wide for internal ones as well as putting in place a fire preparedness work plans at each property.
Although there was a discernible downward trend for three years in a row, matters took a turn for the worse in 2012 when, according to EMA, the country witnessed 16 fatalities from 1 861 fire incidences on over 1 320 325 hectares.
There was strong improvement the following season when only four deaths were attributed to veld fires although last year was another sad one with 12 deaths recorded.
“As a nation we cannot afford the continued loss of life and valuables resulting from human error,” says Veterai Mutanda, a village elder in Goromonzi, urging everyone in the province to take stock of their actions and to begin to act responsibly.
It is not only loss of human life that is at stake – systemic ecological and localised environmental degradation is becoming highly prominent as a result of uncontrolled fires, explains Kangata, describing how fires lower the natural resilience of ecosystems to disaster impact and delays recovery, thus generally weakening the natural resource base on which human activity is ultimately dependent.
“There are fire incidents that we have picked from our satellite fire station but these are attributed to early burning and/or the use of fires in fireguard construction which is allowed before the fire season,” explains the publicity manager.
In 2014 the country lost 1 661 754ha to veld fires from a total of 2 575 fire incidences. Property ranging from farm implements, household goods, plantations and agricultural produce were gutted down by fires.
The 2014 fire season saw the country losing 12 lives to fires, property worth $66 030, plantations valued at $ 47 595 and agricultural produce and equipment and livestock valued at $168 650, giving a total loss of at least $282 275.
EMA is undertaking various activities in different provinces that are aimed at creating awareness and building the capacity of communities to sustainably manage fire in their areas.
The agency has a fire risk prediction model produced every year well before the fire season to highlight the risk level for each area regarding veld fires. Selected areas such as Nyanga, Chimanimani, Mutare, Hwange, Umguza, Hurungwe, Makonde, Kadoma, Chegutu, Mazowe, Bindura and Kwekwe are predicted to be in extreme risk to fires.
The fire prediction model for 2015 predicts that 37,75 percent of the country is at medium risk to fires while 37,72 percent of the country is at high risk.
“In the 2015 fire season predictions, there has been a marked reduction in extreme risk zone from 35,2 percent in 2014 to 12,76 percent in 2015,” said Kangata.
EMA records and monitors fires via the fire station which uses satellite remotely sensed technology. The fire incidents are detected at near real time. The fire information is circulated daily as alerts to various stakeholders by email and telephone.
The daily fire alerts are sent to all EMA provincial and districts offices. Stakeholders that receive daily fire alerts include; Meteorology Services Department, Haka Park, Agritex, ZINWA, Forestry Commission, Universities, SIRDC, Local Government and the Civil Protection Unit. These alerts enhance preparedness to stakeholders to put off the fires.
“Veld fires also destroy grazing land thereby undermining the country’s ongoing Government’s restocking programme,” he added.
“Most veld fires stem from human activities and the solution should come from us as Zimbabweans. We need to start acting now to reduce the destruction of our natural assets,” emphasised Kangata.
Mbuya Chirinda, weighs in, her voice full of emotion: “Only if we can adequately ingrain it in our communities to do something . . . my grandchildren would still be here with me.
“Fire is a good servant but a bad master,” she says, reflecting on the 2009 tragedy.