Our country is on fire!

It’s going to be fierce and it’s going to be violent.

That is the prediction by Secretary for Environment, Water and Climate Mr Prince Mupazviriho as he looks – with foreboding – to the 2017-18 “fire season”.

He has good reason to be concerned.

The incidences of veld fires are on the rise, destroying 435 170 hectares of land, from July 2017 to date.

From July 31 to last week, 776 fire incidences had been recorded, up from 691 last year.

In 2016, the country registered 1 652 major fire incidences that devoured more than one million hectares of land.

And Mr Mupazviriho says last year’s figures could be surpassed by November as “fierce and violent veld fires” are forecast.

“The rains promoted the growth of grass that translated to high fuel load,” he says. “Prediction for 2017 indicates that the fire season of July to November is generally at the ‘high to extreme fire risk’ for most parts of the country. Communities should, therefore, be prepared for fierce and violent veld fire incidences.”

Already, two deaths have been recorded and 31 criminal dockets opened. Seventy tickets have been issued to offenders.

Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union director Mr Paul Zakariya says the country could see food security go up in flames.

“The destruction caused not only to the crop but also the soil quality is massive,” he says. “But also the destruction of ground cover exposes the ground to running water when the rains come and this causes soil erosion and                                                                             gullies.”

For any country, this translates into a huge economic cost.

The Environmental Management Agency says farmers and communities in Mashonaland West, Insiza, Zvimba, Mazowe, Goromonzi and Chikomba districts face greater risk as they have a lot of biomass.

To reduce the risk, EMA spokesperson Mr Steady Kangata says the agency is working with farmers to harvest grass.

“We are currently working with farmers to adopt fire suppressing measures which include harvesting of grass (hay baling) where grass is harvested as fodder to feed livestock in areas such as Matabeleland North,” he said.

“Grass harvesting reduces the biomass and if grass is reduced, in case of a fire, it will not be fierce.”

A farmer in Mashonaland Central, Ms Audrey Hativagone, lost 120 tonnes of maize at her Burnbank Farm to veld fires in July.

Observers say many other such losses go unreported by subsistence farmers.

The impact is not limited to immediate economic and food security impacts, and extends to air and water pollution, and global warming and climate change.

Forestry Commission operations manager Mr Stephen Zingwena says the organisation has upped its game.

“Plans have been put in place for the protection of the 23 gazetted forests covering in excess of 827 000ha that are under the management of the commission against damage,” he says. “We already have community-based fire management brigades in some communities who were formed and their membership trained in fire protection.”

Mr Zingwena confirmed plans for production and operationalisation of 23 fire management plans and 1 610km of fire lines to be opened to facilitate fire-fighting.

Close to 1 310km of fire lines are going to be mowed to reduce fuel load and 210 200ha of identified high fire risk areas to be early-block burnt as a way of reducing fire intensity during the fire season.

Organisations like Environment Africa are also playing their part.

“Communities have been assisted to establish fire management committees at ward and village level,” says Sandra Gobvu of Environment Africa’s communications unit.

“Villages have also received training to form fire management plans with the assistance of relevant stakeholders. The villagers also form committees that are trained to start sensitisation in communities about fire and are provided with equipment such shovels, fire beaters and knapsacks.”

Veld fires caused seven deaths, and lost of property worth US$84 787 and plantations valued at US$152 736 in 2016; with Mashonaland West witnessing fire incidences that consuming 631 622ha.

While Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 (Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystems) prohibits lighting of a fire outside residential and commercial premises between July 31 and October 31 of each year, the country is still on fire.

Reckless disposal of lit cigarette stubs, smoking out of bees for honey harvesting, and land clearing have been identified as some of the leading causes of veld fires.

Hunting and improper household ash disposal are also cited as leading causes of bush fires.

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