EDITORIAL COMMENT : Veld fires need combined action to stop

27 Sep, 2022 - 00:09 0 Views
EDITORIAL COMMENT : Veld fires need combined action to stop

The Herald

EVERY year as winter retreats and before the rains come we see temperatures rise, people start clearing land for farming, and veld fires become a major menace.

So far this fire season, we have seen more than 2 000 unplanned or uncontrolled fires with 570 000 hectares of pasture, grassland and woodland damaged.

One person has died in a fire, so at least a lot more people are now aware of the dangers and know what to do when confronted by a fire, with emergency services getting better at alerting people in danger.

More worrisome in some ways is that 223ha were on average burnt out in each fire, down on the average of 238ha of last year, but still a large area.

The number of fires and the average area burnt out in each fire show the double problem the Environmental Management Agency and the rest of the authorities that have to deal with fires face, along with the farmers, forest owners and those who have to deal with the damage.

Those 2 000 fires so far, with October and early November still to add their toll, show the extreme levels of carelessness involved.

A few fires are natural, caused by lightning, but that only happens much nearer the start of the rains. Probably all the 2 000 so far are man-made fires.

These can arise in many ways. Some are cooking fires getting out of control after being neglected, being lit too close to grass and other dry vegetation, or not having a proper gap to cope with sparks from resinous wood.

Continual pressure must be maintained to get people to think when they want to cook their lunch.

Dropped matches and cigarette butts initiate their share. People who doubt this should look at the verges where careless smokers manage to get a glowing tip hitting just the right bunch of dry tinder, or where a match still burning is dropped. It is easy for a smoker to stub out their butt properly and make sure the match is dead. Smokers in cars should use an ashtray, not a window.

Then we get people burning their garbage, and even if there is some problem with collections, burning rubbish in the open is not a good idea. Besides normal risks of fire spreading, things like some plastics, scraps of paper and other muck in a garbage fire can spread a lot faster and further. If people have to get rid of their own rubbish burying it is far safer.

Then we have people using fire to clear land for crops or even pasture. This is not necessarily evil and is not illegal if done properly.

The basic condition is that the plot of land or the field must be isolated, and in any case a farmer is not supposed to be burning hundreds of hectares in one go, but just a small field or part of a field at a time so that the fire remains under control.

Fire clearing has probably been overused in the past. The growing trend towards conservation farming and the need for mulching means that a lot more vegetation is needed as mulch, compost and just allowed to rot, rather than being burnt.

And when fire clearing is appropriate the normal precautions of proper fire-breaks around the field being burnt off and adequate numbers of people ready to extinguish any spread need to be observed, along with the common sense of not doing this when even a modest wind is blowing.

All these precautions should and must cut the numbers of fires. These all require everyone with a box of matches to use their common sense, think ahead and not go round destroying the veld.

The EMA is now using its legal powers and fining those it catches causing fires, with 63 people so far this fire season having to pay $50 000 fines and with one going to court.

Admittedly this means the overwhelming majority of people who cause fires are not yet being caught, but a lot more could be caught if others turned in those they see lighting fires.

It is rare in Zimbabwe to be able to do anything in the open without someone else seeing you, and the careless should be turned in.

If 10 times as many were being fined they would still be a minority of the fire lighters, but the deterrent would be more effective and the word would get around that the EMA is serious about hunting down those who damage the environment.

The other strand is to ensure that when a fire does start, and however careful we are there will always be fires, that it cannot spread too far.

By law farmers are supposed to put in adequate fire breaks, but far more important than the law is the common sense precaution.

Farmers should think of fire breaks as something that stops their careless neighbours and the careless city folk having a picnic from wrecking their farm. It is like insurance, you hope you never need it but when you do need a fire break you really want an effective one.

Even small holder farmers can put in breaks, although they are unlikely to have a plough to cut one, but slashing grass and other brush, which in any case can be used as mulch, will help.

A fire-break besides stopping a fire is more often used as a line where a fire can be safely fought. Flames can still travel and sparks can still fly, but those huge walls of flame are stopped allowing people to then go after the small fires on the other side of the break before they become the big fires on the other side.

The other requirement is that when a fire does break out, the whole neighbourhood must become involved. Assuming firebreaks are in place to at least retard the fire to a level where it can be fought, then the main need is a lot of people ready to fight it.

They should not be taking serious risks, which is why firebreaks must be in place, but having people along a road or firebreak means the fire can often be stopped.

This usually involves beating out the odd small rivulet of flame or the sparks crossing the line.

We are trying to build up our farming, build up orchards, and build up our cattle herd. All this requires undamaged land and treating fire as a serious threat.

It is no longer for many farmers just something that happens but something that wrecks carefully maintained pastures, destroys an orchard and hardens the soil on carefully dug and ploughed fields.

Every fire will cause ever more damage in monetary terms, so even city people, who might not care so much, should respect their farming fellow citizens and take care.

Those in the peri-urban and rural areas should be taking extra care and be ready to take the precautions, such as the firebreaks.

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