ZIMBABWE – Veld fires have become one of Zimbabwe’s greatest environmental challenges for the past decade, mostly affecting the farming community. These are blazes that get out of control and in the process destroy extensive tracts of forests, grasslands, animals, people and their properties. This burning has negative impacts on pastures, crop yields, soil fertility and the hydrological cycle.
In 2017, 2 705 fire incidences were recorded up from to 1 652 in 2016 translating to a 63.7% increase. As a result, 1268 534 hectares of land were burnt by fires compared to 1197 335 hectares during the same period in 2016, which is a 5,9 percent increase. The scourge killed 6 people in 2017 down from 7 in 2016 and destroyed property worth over $300 000 compared to $241 569.00 in 2016.
The increase in veld fire incidences, area burnt and the value of property destroyed can be largely attributed to the La nina effect which brought about more than average rainfall during the 2016 /2017 rainy season, resulting in massive vegetative growth. The high biomass was the major driver for veld fire occurrences and the situation could have been worse had it not been of the interventions by the Agency and other stakeholders, who worked tirelessly hard to put in place fire prevention and suppression measures. These included fireguard construction, hay baling, thatch and broom grass harvesting as well as early burning to reduce the biomass. In some communities fire- fighting teams were set and the speedily responded to any incidences of fires they detected.
Every land owner has a responsibility to put in place the necessary fire suppression measures in and around their properties as stipulated in the Forest Act (Chapter 19:05) and Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 (Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystems Protection) Regulations. According to these laws, it is an offence for a land owner and occupier not to take fire preventative measures such as the construction of standard fire guards which are at least 9 metres wide before the onset of the fire season. Fire protection on properties should be planned and coordinated. Farm owners can unite to construct fire guards around their properties. It is also important for farm owners to ensure their fire-fighting equipment is serviced.
What other fire protection measures should farmers take?
It is very important to plan the required fire protection measures in good time. A farmer needs to determine the precautionary measures that should be taken to limit the spread of a fire. The measures include the following;
The construction of fire guards that are at least 9m wide along the farm boundary with the co-operation of your neighbour, by the months of May and June every year;
The construction of internal fire guards which are 4,5m wide around fields and plantations to protect crops;
Controlled burning of areas with thick vegetation to reduce biomass. This should however be done well before the fire season.
Ensure that fire-fighting equipment is in place; bowsers or knapsack sprayers filled with water and fire beaters during the fire season.
Keep bowsers and knapsacks filled with water throughout the fire season.
Keep fire- fighting equipment such as fire beaters at an accessible central point.
Use ox-drawn ploughs, tractors or hoes to construct fireguards.
Inspect fireguards regularly to make sure that they are free of any combustible material.
Organize and request Forestry Commission and EMA to train fire-fighting teams for your farms or community.
Have fire alert systems such as drums, whistles and bells;
Listen to weather personnel on the fire danger index so as to improve their state of preparedness.
Bear in mind however, that no fireguard will stop a fire in all conditions; firebreaks enable farmers to fight or counter fires.
The collaborative approach
A collaborative approach is needed when it comes to preventing veld fires. Farmers need to discuss with their neighbours on the fire protection measures and the steps they will take in the event of a fire. Neighbours formulate an action plan together so that each one knows what is expected of him/her in event of a fire. It is advisable that farmers enter into a written agreement with the owners of adjoining land with regards burning of fire-breaks, boundary agreed upon or on the common boundary. Fire-breaks needed on the boundary can be prepared together with adjoining owners. If an agreement cannot be reached on the construction of fireguards, consult with local leadership. The agreement should state the date by which fireguard construction should be completed, the width, length, location of the fireguards and the sharing of costs.
Any person intending to undertake controlled burning should notify his neighbour at least 14 days in advance. It is advisable that the neighbour be present on the day of burning.
Thoughts on fire protection on the farm
Unintentional fires start countless times in ash pits; hot ash is thrown out and sets other flammable materials alight. Ensure that the area around the ash pit is clear of dry grass, crop residues and other materials that burn.
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