Inaccurate wildfire data may stifle

Inaccurate wildfire data may stifle
response plans

15 May 2016

published by

Zimbabwe — CONFLICTING data on wildfires in Zimbabwe will have key implications for bio-diversity

conservation now and in the future, and potentially undercut effective action that minimises the

impact of uncontrolled fires on local climates.

Figures on land cover decimated by fire are vastly divergent, never linear.

Although official data shows veld fires burnt down 1,5 million hectares of forest and grasslands in

2015, down 10 percent from a year earlier, independent estimates are more damning.

Some 3,2 million hectares of land cover were destroyed during the first nine months of 2015 alone,

they contend.

Wildfires are a major driver of change in land use patterns, altering the forest cover, plant and

animal composition, as well as weaken the country’s capabilities to function effectively as a storer of

carbon. With 45 percent of the total land area under forests, and accounting for just 0,05 percent

of the global greenhouse gas emissions total, Zimbabwe is considered a net carbon sink, according

to the Environment, Water and Climate Ministry.

Now, questions are beginning to emerge over the accuracy, and therefore reliability, of the official

data on wild fires published every now and then, especially during the so-called fire season (July to

October) by environment regulator, the Environment Management Agency (EMA).

“Who authenticates this data?” queried Mr Wilson Chimwedzi, director FireFight Trust, a local NGO

that tracks wildfire outbreaks.

“EMA cannot generate (compile) data and then authenticate it (own their own). There is need for

third party confirmation, say from a local university like Bindura University of Science Education

which has programmes on fire.”

The existing EMA criteria on fire data collection was vague and should be clarified and agreed upon

by and with input from various public, private, civic and academic parties, he said.

Mr Chimwedzi said there was a general uneasy consistency in the official annual fire statistics,

which gravitate towards 1,5 or 1,6 million (hectares burnt).

“But fire is not static, the area burnt today is not the same as the one burnt tomorrow,” he argued.

According to data from FireFight Trust, which tracks fires using a satellite imaging system called

Advanced Fire Information Systems (AFIS), there were more than 24 500 uncontrolled and

controlled fire outbreaks throughout 2015.

EMA, which also uses the same system but an older version of it, put that figure at 2 464. “I cannot

understand, we use the same system, but why is it that the Environmental Management Agency

produces different results?” Mr Chimwedzi quipped

Figures from FireFight Trust show that more than 1 000 fires burned in Hurungwe in September

alone, the highest by any other district across Zimbabwe. In total, more fires were started in

Hurungwe’s Mashonaland West — 8 500 — than in any of Zimbabwe’s other nine provinces last year.

In Matabeleland North, a haven for natural woodlands, hardwood timber, more than 3 300 fires

burned, and over 3 500 in the key farming region of Mashonaland Central, FireFight Trust says.

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