ZIMBABWE – The electoral commission officials picked the ballot boxes up and took to their heels, scattering in every direction.
A spontaneous wildfire had broken out, sweeping through the parched grasslands and sparse forests behind the large tent where voting was taking place at a polling station somewhere in Norton on July 30.
“The New Donnington Farm fire was detected at around 11am and the fire covered around 3,2 hectares,” according to Wilson Chimwedzi, director at FireFight Trust, a local non-governmental which tracks wildfire incidences using satellite technology.
“Cause of fire is unknown but the farm has not prepared adequate fire-guards and clearing of grass was not done,” he said.
Veld fires are a yearly menace in Zimbabwe, driving major changes in land use patterns, altering the forest cover, plant and animal composition.
Now, they threaten to weaken Zimbabwe’s ambitions to function effectively as a storer of carbon.
The country, which accounts for just 0,05 percent of the global greenhouse gases emissions total, is widely considered a net carbon sink, meaning it captures more emissions than it produces. According to Government figures, about 45 percent of Zimbabwe’s total land area is covered by trees, a major purifier of climate-damaging gases such as carbon dioxide. But a lack of sufficient preparations and skill to prevent small fires from becoming big fires that decimate native woodlands has become a major concern.
At New Donnington, there existed ready fuel for the fire to spread out of control quickly, consuming everything in its path, including the tent, which housed the future of a hopeful electorate.
Grass tall and dry compassed about the polling station, which stood erect in the centre of a sun-baked football field. The weather conditions were windy, under lots of sunshine.
This is what is shown by images from polling day at the Norton farm, where Zimbabweans were voting to choose a new president, parliamentarians and local government officials. What they didn’t show, however, is that a yellow alert — a rung below red — had been issued by FireFight Trust, warning against the degree of danger from uncontrolled fires.
According to FireFight Trust, the Fire Danger Rating Index in Norton on the day of polling read 28,3 and the Fire Radiation Power was at 7 — the higher the figure, the greater the danger. Humidity was at 30.
“ . . . the rating for the area was yellow, indicating potential for moderate fires,” Chimwedzi, whose Trust collaborates with Government to tackle fire issues, told The Herald Business, by text message. Chimwedzi said both the radiation and humidity readings pointed at moderate potentials, intensity and how quickly the fire was likely to burn and grow.
But the fire danger readings found no takers from both the farm management and workers, and the election officials, largely due to ignorance, poor farming practices and a lack of effectively preventive strategies. An even when the fire was eventually discovered, there wasn’t enough preparation and equipment to stop the fire from spreading further afield.
“Farm workers were not properly equipped with fire beaters as they were using (tree) branches to stop the fire,” lamented Chimwedzi, the FireFight Trust director, whose organisation needs about $13 700 per year to roll out a dedicated press and radio fire awareness campaign. The election officials had only their feet to turn to, and so they fled the scene, ballot boxes in hand.
“The state of preparedness is generally low . . . very few high value organisations have confirmed their state of preparedness,” Chimwedzi said.
Climate goal threat
About 1,5 million hectares of land — much of it grasslands, plantation forests and natural woodlands — go up in flames each year in Zimbabwe, despite its small geographical size.
According to environment regulator EMA, the figures have soared from just 400 000ha at the end of 2001, when Government speeded up land reforms, to resettle over 300 000 native farmers on virgin land.
Farmers have gone on to cut down trees, clearing the land for agriculture. Fire is commonly used in this process also, even outside the so-called three-month to October “fire season”, the period in which anyone is allowed to start a fire outside their homes legally.
Lack of effective fire preventive strategies, as highlighted by the New Donnington Farm polling day veld fire outbreak, is now a key part of the problem threatening Zimbabwe’s climate goals under the Paris Agreement, if left unchecked.
According to a Government plan drawn up under the climate accord, the country aims to sequestrate unquantified amounts of carbon dioxide through its forests, estimated to be covering 15,6 million hectares, or 45 percent of the total land area.
The plan revolves around Zimbabwe getting paid for keeping its trees standing — or not destroyed by fire — under a UN forestry programme called REDD+. The plan is already underway in the country’s west, under the Hwange-Sanyati Biological Corridor Project, funded by the World Bank to the tune of $29 million.
But national projections on forest-related mitigation now appear very optimistic, given already the runaway rate of deforestation in Zimbabwe, estimated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation to have reached 327 000ha per year, between 1990 and 2010.
If deforestation is a nightmare to governing authorities, then, the rising incidences of destructive wildfire outbreaks is a nightmare come true.