Bushfires a seasonal occurrence in north-eastern Namibia - News - Gondwana Collection

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Bushfires a seasonal occurrence in north-eastern Namibia

Avatar of inke inke - 07. December 2018 - Environment

In strong wind conditions a vegetation fire becomes unstoppable. This fire jumped the B1 highway in a fraction of a second. Backfires along fire breaks are the only option to get a raging blaze under control. However, setting backfires requires a lot of expertise.

Dirk Heinrich

Over large parts of Namibia the sky has a greyish white tinge during August and September. Shadows are not the usual inky black and a bluish grey haze seems to envelope even the landscape in the distance. From a plane you will definitely notice the layer of smog which hovers up to 12000 feet (3657 metres) above sea level, or about 2000 metres above the ground. Countless bushfires, some of them huge, are the reason for the greyish white sky and for air pollution at levels high above the ground – especially in north-eastern Namibia and in neighbouring Angola, Zambia and Botswana.

Local communities set fire to the dry grass at the end of winter to have fresh green grass for their livestock as quickly as possible after the first rains, and sometimes to prevent wild animals from going undetected in the vicinity of their modest huts and settlements. Usually it is ignored that unnatural early fires in May, June and July destroy valuable pasture and natural resources. A lot of vegetation fires – not only in Namibia’s northeast – are the result of carelessness and cause enormous damage to infrastructure, especially in national parks, on communal land and commercial farms. Every so often animals fall victim to the flames, and sometimes people as well. Some fires rage for days. Commercial farmers try to extinguish the blaze with water cannons mounted onto vehicles or by beating out the flames. Often, however, backfires are the only way out. They are also a preferred fire fighting method in national parks. But setting backfires requires expertise, or otherwise they can easily turn into deadly traps for animals and humans alike.

A Lilac-breasted Roller flies next to the fire to catch fleeing insects.

Veldfires are nothing unusual in nature, though, and at specific times they are even necessary. Some seeds need extreme heat to germinate. Some shrubs are forced back by fire before they start to suppress other plant species. Dense undergrowth is destroyed, after which numerous plants can thrive again. Many animals also benefit from natural fires: they eat the masses of insects and various small animals fleeing from the flames. Many pests no longer find cover after a fire and become easy prey to their predators.

The National Remote Sensing Centre of the Directorate of Forestry in the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry has been monitoring veldfires via satellites since 1994. Every bushfire and the size of the burned area in each region of the country are recorded in a database. The data has been used to calculate the size of the areas which under normal circumstances burn in the respective regions in the various months. These fires are either caused by nature (lightning) or created by humans. Even conservationists have programs according to which fires are set in certain areas to destroy old vegetation and give new plants the opportunity to develop. This regime is intended to benefit biodiversity.

Especially in the period between the end of winter and before the first big rains, it is important that everyone, whether they are visitors to a farm, employees of lodges, tourists or those living in communal areas, make sure that no fire which is lit for cooking, gets out of control and sets the veld alight. This is an enormous danger, especially on windy days.

A satellite image taken on 15 October this year shows numerous fires south and east of Rundu in north-eastern Namibia.

According to the Remote Sensing Centre, 2829.34 km² of vegetation were destroyed by fire in the Zambezi Region in the four months from June to September: of the total, 429.288 km² burned in August and 2243.50 km² in September. Numerous fires raged in Bwabwata National Park and some in the Mudumu and Nkasa Rupara national parks. In addition, many communal conservancies were affected. An area of 4232.06 km ² fell victim to the flames in the Kavango East and the Kavango West regions between June and the end of September: 816.488 km² in August and 3350.76 km² in September – an indication that this year the fires were set late.

In the Otjozondjupa region most of the fires raged in former Bushmanland. In total 2970.09 km² were charred: 757.252 km² in August and 1729.87 km² in September. In the Omaheke region a total of 467.05 km² burned: 257.325 km² in August and 203.66 km² in September. A single fire in the Oshana region destroyed 259.746 km² in August after no fires had been reported previously. An area of 15.01 km² was still burning in September. Several smaller fires to the east and north as well as in Etosha National Park destroyed a total of 33.204 km² in the course of four months, according to the report of the National Remote Sensing Centre.

Dark clouds of smoke rise from the northern bank of the Okavango River after reeds and grass have been set alight on the Angolan side. No one tries to put out such fires. Sometimes they rage for days until they burn themselves out.
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