Bush Fires & Climate Change

Bush fire

Bush Fires

The last two days has been spent fighting a bushfire which destroyed thousands of acres near the Center. On Thursday I accompanied one of the teams fighting the fire and witnessed and felt things I will never forget. It is frightening beyond imagine and incredibly hot. If a gust of wind should somehow kick up and throw the flames your way, you could be dead in a second. We drove over charged, and smoldering ground and right near flames. Fortunately, this area was already largely cleared –  intentionally, so there was not much tall grass, but where the fire gets to tall grass it is devastating, burning thick, black, and out of control.  Of course, like living with wild game, living with bush fires is all part of the grind.  Shane was fairly unphased, as were his crew and assisting villagers.  I saw the smolder crossing our path and I asked Shane how we were going to get back. “Walk over it”, he said rather matter-of-factly, and proceeded to head in that direction, wearing nothing more than clogs, shorts, and a work shirt.  In fact, he walked just to the side of it, and I did the same.  From the main camp you could see and smell the smoke in the distance.  Allan informed me that the entire property has been burned out before and all they were able to save were the buildings. Man made bush fires are unfortunately a way of life, and they often get out of hand, as this one did.  Setting fires to clear a field is outlawed after June 1st, when the dry season begins, and the perpetrator will be jailed, or so I’m told. Allan told me that while the fire was being bravely fought over a two day period by a wide collection of people, including local villagers, the regional fire service, and our own center staff, the perpetrator just sat in his hut and drank beer. The images I have of an old women in traditional skirt walking by smoldering ground with a five gallon bucket of water on her head to help in the effort will never leave me. It was hot, smelly, smoldering, and in places flaming, and here she was, clearly in her 60s or 70s, carrying water on her head to help in the effort and walking inches away from hot surfaces with no protective gear of any kind.  We in America have no concept what village life in much of the world is like.

Bushfire from air

Climate Change – Up in Smoke (or not)

The lesson here concerns the unnecessary need that most in rural areas feel they have to clear bush with fire. They don’t.  They could use animals. That is one of the objectives of the Center, to help inform villagers that fire is not necessary.  Animals can do the same job and are nature’s preferred method. The do so without destruction, or smoke, and in a way that is more suitable for the land. Indeed, it is how the grasslands evolved. The natural role of fire on grasslands, by lighting strikes, is vastly over played.  There always were naturally caused bush fires, of course, but the principal way that bush was cleared was by the animals. Acres upon acres of dead bush never naturally existed. It was always eaten by animals and recycled, or trampled down in the topsoil.  Natural fires would not of had the abundant kindling.  Additionally, natural fires from lightning strikes occur, um, during the rainy season, not dry season, like now.  There would never naturally be fires during the dry season, which is most of the year. Instead, grazing animals would be eating and recycling the nutrients. We have the fire equation all wrong.  Contrary to folklore echoed from the villagers to the ivory tower, fire is not what nature wants for nutrient regeneration and not a tool for progress. Indeed, fire is an anathema to healthy sustainable soil.  As is obvious, fire kills. Where there are no animals, intentionally set bush fires will provide a temporary benefit of returning nutrients to the soil, but at a high price.  Over time it kills the grasslands, which will become increasingly patchy and woody, as is happening throughout the world. Of course, these fires are also major contributors to global warming and can wreck havoc on local villages when raging out of control, which I have now seen.  There is nothing like being in the midst of it to see it and feel it intuitively.  If fire had been the key component of grassland evolution, the atmosphere would have been thick with smog the world over and CO2 levels would have been quite higher. Yes, fire was there, occasionally, during the brief rainy season, but more common were herding mammals in the hundreds of millions, moving like clouds on the surface of the earth, trampling and digesting the bush, turning it back to moist, nutrient rich, water-retaining soil. They are gone, and now we have fire. This is a Faustian bargain, faithfully adhered to by the scholars of range science and the Western machine of land “cultivation”.  The Africa Center for Holistic Management, and its sister organization in the US, The Savory Institute, want to break this bargain and set things right again. It is time to forge a new deal with the land. One in which animals and soil are rejoined in their co-evolutionary balance, and fire is banished from the human toolshed, living only as the occasional natural occurrence, burning briefly and unsubstantially, while mammals, correctly managed, restore soil as nature intended, and in a fashion that retains water and, thus, holds promise. Let us not have a future that goes up in smoke, when the alternative is so apparent.

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