Nation counts cost of raging veld fires

A teachers’ cottage that was destroyed by a veld fire at Cyrene High School

A teachers’ cottage that was destroyed by a veld fire at Cyrene High School

Yoliswa Dube
On one sluggish Tuesday afternoon in Hwange, Matabeleland North province, Mrs Nothando Ndlovu could hear distinct flickering sounds from her bathroom window.

She thought little of the sounds until she could smell some smoke.

“I decided to peep through the window, just to find  out if I was hearing things and got the shock of my life,” said Mrs Ndlovu.

Directly behind her house was grassland being consumed by raging flames.

“There’s significantly large grassland behind our house and it was burning. There was no way of telling who had started the fire but I noticed it was quickly spreading towards our house and my mind raced as I tried to figure out what to do next,” she said.

Worried that the fire would eventually raze her home and cars while she lounged in the bathroom, Mrs Ndlovu abandoned the bath and headed outside to investigate.

“The fire was spreading but I for some reason thought it would stop when it got to the perimeter fence behind our house so I kept watching it burn,” she said.

The fire had consumed much of the grassland and was thirsty for more vegetation.

“It started burning the trees and grass at our back yard. That’s when I realised I had a serious problem on my hands. At this point, I had told my husband who was at work about the fire but he thought I was being dramatic and didn’t take me seriously,” said Mrs Ndlovu.

She said she decided to take matters into her own hands and called the Fire Brigade before attempting to douse the flames herself.

Mrs Ndlovu was fighting a losing battle but fortunately, the Fire Brigade was at the scene just in time to save the day.

“I’ve never been so helpless in my life. There was no way I was going to put out that fire with a bucket and tap water. I had moved our cars but was ready to watch our house burn to ashes because there was nothing I could’ve done to save the situation had the fire fighters not come in time,” she said.

Many are not as lucky. Unlike Mrs Ndlovu, they do not live to tell the story.

Veld fires have affected many areas across the country and are threatening to wipe out grazing for livestock.

They have destroyed property worth thousands of dollars and threaten to destroy more unless efforts are made to curb these veld fires.

Several people have been killed by veld fires since the start of the fire season in July.

Mrs Phindile Moyo of Zimdabule Village in Umguza died while cutting grass in her plot when she found herself surrounded by a fire which came from a neighbouring plot.

In another incident, Mr Khondanani Lungu of Ward 8 at Plot 16 in Umguza died when a fire broke out when he was in the field. He allegedly tried to put it out alone but it overwhelmed him.

“I wish we knew who is starting these fires. We only get calls to attend to fires but never catch the culprits who start them. Lives are being lost to these veld fires, our animals are dying, property worth thousands of dollars is being lost and our grazing lands are being depleted,” said a fire fighter only identified as Ngwenya who was battling to put out a veld fire behind Mrs Ndlovu’s house.

He said the Hwange fire department had of late been inundated with calls to attend to fires across the district and this was a worrying trend.

“If Mrs Ndlovu hadn’t called us in good time, we could’ve been talking of a different story right now. Most people don’t react swiftly in such situations.

They wait until it’s too late. We often find someone burnt or killed by the fire or property destroyed,” said Ngwenya.

Many people have over the years been arrested for starting veld fires but it seems the punishment being meted out is not deterrent enough hence the increase in cases of veld fires. The Environmental Management Agency’s educational campaigns are ongoing but it seems those starting veld fires do not appreciate the adverse effects of these fires to the environment, livestock, game and people.

Parliamentarians recently called for deterrent sentences for people who start veld fires which have destroyed almost one million hectares of land across the country this year.

At present, culprits get away with fines or suspended sentences.

Mudzi West Member of Parliament Cde Magna Mudyiwa moved a motion to amend the legislative framework that deals with veld fires so that it provides for stiffer custodial sentences for people who start fires.

“Particularly this year, the 2016/2017 season, we received plenty of rainfall, normal to above normal as a result of Tropical Cyclone Dineo. The rains supported the growth of vegetation, which translates to high loads of fuel with a high probability of 80 percent of veld fire outbreaks in the country,” said Cde Mudyiwa.

“What we’ve witnessed in the country are fierce wild fires because of the standing vegetation, hence the need for us as a nation to guard against this menace.”

He said most causes of veld fires are anthropogenic, which means they originate from human activities.

The Environmental Management Act criminalises the starting of fires during the fire season and it is an offence to pass by or drive past a veld fire without reporting it to relevant authorities.

This piece of legislation criminalises the failure to put in place standard fire guards which are at least nine metres wide at farms.

“What I’ve seen is that all these [pieces of] legislation have been enforced but they’re not being adhered to. There’s been trivialisation of environmental issues where environmental offenders normally get suspended sentences; there’s no custodial sentence in living memory concerning veld fire offences,” said Cde Mudyiwa.

Veld fires lead to the depletion of forests hence the need to protect living things that depend on the ecosystem.

EMA public relations officer, Mr Steady Kangata advised members of the public, especially those in rural areas, to desist from storing flammable substances and to maintain clear fireguards.

“Our statistics show that we’ve had many more veld fires this year compared to last year. We should all conserve the environment as it’s in our best interests. Four people have been killed by veld fires in the last three months and these statistics are catastrophic,” he said while urging members of the public to report anyone they see starting a veld fire.

Mr Kangata said the country had so far recorded a 25 percent increase in veld fires countrywide compared to the same period last year.

The number of fire incidents increased by 63 percent while the total area destroyed has increased by 13 percent compared to the same period last year.

Mr Kangata said by September 21 this year, 1 484 cases of veld fires had been recorded countrywide compared to 967 cases recorded during the same period last year.

He said 760 000 hectares had already been destroyed by veld fires this year with the worst affected province being Mashonaland West where 266 810 hectares have been destroyed and Matabeleland North having lost 235 230 hectares.

In Kezi, Matabeleland South province, villagers now fear that unless urgent measures are taken to control veld fires, their livestock could starve.

Chief Nyangazonke said the veld fires had destroyed a greater portion of the grazing area under his jurisdiction and measures should be taken to stop hunters and panners from starting veld fires. He said hunters and panners had become a menace in his area as their activities were threatening their livestock.

Communities should therefore take the lead in ensuring that those that start veld fires are arrested. Councillors, village heads and chiefs should come up with ways of policing their respective areas. Communities should also have fire guards to prevent the fires from spreading. – @Yolisswa

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