Satellite technology unites Kenyans against bush fires

NYERI, Kenya – It took nine hours for Margaret Wanjugu and neighbors to put out a fire that razed Gathorongai forest near her home in central Kenya, in 2016. She would not like to go through such an experience again, and for a good reason.

Not only did the mother of two nearly lose her herd of goats, which were grazing in the forest, but elephants escaping the fire raided her field of potato plants, leaving her without a harvest.

“No help came from forest officers working here,” Wanjugu said. “We improvised and used twigs to put out the fire.”

Like thousands of farmers living near conservation areas in Kenya, Wanjugu lives in fear of Gathorongai forest catching fire. These communities lack an early warning system, relying on crude methods, like seeing smoke, to know of a fire outbreak.

Recently, a technology developed by the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD), a government agency based in Nairobi, has begun helping troubled Kenyans like Wanjugu with early detection of bush fires in conservation areas.

RCMRD’s Eastern and Southern Africa Fire Information System (ESAFIS) web application is a free and open-source service used in all conservation and protected areas in Kenya and 10 other eastern African countries.

Detecting fire intensity
The ESAFIS system senses fire outbreaks using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro-radiometer (MODIS) satellite at RCMRD, according to Byron Anangwe, the business development officer there.

“When we get high temperature values at any particular point, we estimate that as a fire,” Anangwe said. “We mostly target game reserves and forests.”

The system then posts this information on its website for users, including Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and Kenya Forest Service (KFS), to access. These institutions can then engage communities to prevent its spread, says Anangwe. Any individual with internet access can also use the service by visiting the website.

“We are experts at the science,” Anangwe said, “and so our role is to empower national governments, communities and the private sector to prevent fire outbreaks in national reserves and protected areas.”

Anangwe says the ability of ESAFIS to show details of each fire point has helped foresters better contain bush fires. For instance, in January 2017, at the height of a prolonged drought, ESAFIS helped to detect and track fire outbreaks at the Aberdare Forest Reserve.

The website opens with a map that shows recent fire hotspots detected by the system in eastern Africa, categorizing them from low to extreme intensity. At the time of filing this story, for instance, the app showed a fire outbreak around the Lake Turkana region in northwestern Kenya.

Clicking on a fire icon on the map causes a pop-up to appear with the time the fire was detected, its temperature (in Kelvin, subtract 273 degrees to get Celsius!), and its location. It also identifies the nearest towns and protected areas, , in this case the South Turkana National Reserve and Nasolot National Reserve, as well as the towns of Lokichar and Kaputirr.

Anangwe says ESAFIS produces high-resolution images and has an accuracy range of about two kilometers in the areas under investigation. Users can subscribe to the ESAFIS web app and receive real-time alerts of fire outbreaks in their country or conservation area of interest as soon as the data is captured by satellite, he adds.

“Everything about the system is informed by data gathered using satellite surveillance,” Anangwe said, adding that the service must work with communities for it to be effective in fighting bush fires. One limitation is the map-heavy app may overburden slower rural internet networks.

Importance of early detection
Wanjugu had not heard about ESAFIS. At her village, residents often rely on word of mouth to pass information about the safety of lands around Gathorongai forest, which often arrives too late to prevent the spread of fire within such marginalized communities.

A wide angle view of the leeward side of the Mt. Kenya forest ecosystem. Fire outbreaks on this side of the mountain are common due to prolonged dry spells. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.
But David Mwanzia has. Mwanzia is the ecosystem conservation manager at KFS’s Nyeri Forest station in central Kenya. A no-smoking sign at the entrance to his office alerts a visitor of the danger reckless disposal of cigarette butts can pose to the fragile ecosystem there. But a fire engine truck parked at the compound assures visitors that his team of foresters are aware and ready to battle bush fires.

“Fire outbreaks here are very common,” said Mwanzia. “They are very dangerous, but my team is always on alert to prevent their spread.”

Mwanzia says the December to January season is the most prone to fire outbreaks there, but ESAFIS’ early sensing is helping his teams respond more effectively.

“Our staff do not go on leave at this time of the year,” Mwanzia said. “They are positioned to take immediate action when we receive a fire outbreak alert.”

What causes the fires in the first place?

Wanjugu said the Gathorongai forest fire ignited after a burning cigarette butt was recklessly thrown on the forest floor.

Farmers burning farm waste in preparation of the planting season in central Kenya. When left unchecked such fires can spread into forests and raze acres of the natural ecosystem. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.
Stephen Korinko of the Kimana Conservancy in southern Kenya says local communities, and their slash and burn system of agriculture in particular, are to blame for most fire outbreaks. With this system, says Korinko, pastoralists set bushes on fire just before the rainy season to clear the aging vegetation so that when it rains, fresh fodder can sprout.

For instance, he said, a fire that razed hundreds of acres along the wildebeest migratory corridor in the Serengeti in July 2018 was linked to the slash and burn system.

Additional dangers of bush fires
“The fires can spread to uncontrollable levels, especially when there are strong winds,” Korinko said. “Displaced wild animals often attack and kill people’s livestock, leading to a lot of tensions.”

Wildfires also pump carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, says David Ngugi, a retired professor based in Nairobi. According to Ngugi, fires destroy trees that absorb carbon from the atmosphere and lead to the extinction of some tree species which might not be able to grow back once they are burned.

“Fires also cause landscapes and ecosystems to change from forests to grasslands and shrubs,” Ngugi said.

Members of the Atiriri Bururi Ma Chuka community conservation group from central Kenya showing some of the indigenous tree species that are continuously threatened by fire outbreaks. Image by David Njagi.
Not all bush fires are bad, however, especially those that do not burn too long, says Mbeo Ogeya, a researcher at the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI). Bush fires, Ogeya says, are a natural process – nature’s way of removing dying or dead material from habitats. This process allows valuable nutrients to return to the soil, enabling regeneration and a new beginning for plants and animals.

Ogeya says that ESAFIS can assist conservation work because it can distinguish between less intense, potentially useful, bush fires and extremely intense bush fires that are more harmful. By sensing fires in their early stages, ESAFIS can help resource managers respond appropriately, according to KWS spokesman Paul Gathitu.

It also reduces the cost of hiring personnel to scout for fire outbreaks, adds Mwanzia, the KFS officer. At the Aberdare Forest Reserve, Mwanzia has had to hire and deploy rangers to patrol the forest and report back immediately once they spot a suspicious fire threat. The skills of these rangers could otherwise be applied to reforestation, guarding the reserve against illegal logging, or other activities. But the continued threat of fire outbreaks pressures him to allocate more resources to these patrols because fires are more destructive than logging, he says.

“The government and public are giving a lot of attention to logging and neglecting bush fires,” Mwanzia said. “Yet a single fire outbreak can clear hundreds of acres of forest and can take a week to put out.”

He adds the Aberdare region is on high alert from December 2018 to February 2019 because this is the peak period of fire outbreaks, but that ESAFIS is making these threats easier to manage.

However, not all conservation staff are aware of ESAFIS. Julius Lokinyi, a ranger at the Samburu National Reserve, still relies on scouting and patrols to ensure the safety of that ecosystem. In 2013, Lokinyi stopped being a poacher in 2013 and has dedicated himself to conservation. He says bush fires are a big challenge there and are often ignited by poachers to distract rangers from their (poachers’) trail.

Over time, Lokinyi and his team of community volunteers have learned to turn this diversion into an opportunity, enabling them to tackle the twin threats of fires and poaching with precision.

“When the poachers light a fire at a particular location, we know they will be active at a site which is the opposite direction to our patrol sites,” Lokinyi said. “So we deploy two teams, one to put out the fire and the other to track the criminals.”

He would like to make ESAFIS available to his team, adding that: “It can make our work easier and more fun.”

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