Veld fire management more important than ever

12 August 2021 | Disasters

Windhoek • Erastus Ngaruka

Rangeland productivity is influenced by several factors such as rainfall, soil condition, fire, herbivory, and other ecological forces like plant competition amongst others. In addition, human activities cannot be ignored when it comes to rangeland utilization. The adverse influence of these factors can disturb the normal ecological processes, leading to rangeland degradation.
One of the recurrent factors that shape rangeland ecosystems is fire (commonly known as veld fires or wildfires), which can occur naturally or as manmade. Many farmers have negative perceptions about veld fires due to their dangerous and destructive nature. However, natural veld fire events serve a very important ecological function. For example, burning moribund materials to allow regrowth or tillering, stimulating seed germination by cracking seed coats, and largely maintain vegetation structures in terms of spacing and balance (e.g., controlling bush encroachment).
On the other hand, artificial fires are either started for a purpose (prescribed fire) or out of negligence.
Prescribed fires are planned for rangeland management purposes to mimic natural influences. These types of fires can also become uncontrolled and devastating if poorly planned and managed.
Veld fires damage farm infrastructure (e.g., fences, pipes), the environment (habitats, soil, plants), and result in injuries and deaths in animals (livestock and wild animals), and humans as well. Further, fire burns the available forage materials, leaving animals with little or nothing to survive on.

Preparation is key
Generally, natural veld fires are caused by lightning strikes, and mainly occur during the spring months or at the onset of the rainy season (September -November) when thunderstorms activities begin.
Therefore, farmers should already prepare to avoid huge losses. In some parts of Namibia, fire activities have already started, and most of these unplanned or accidental fires can be attributed to human activities including charcoal production, campfire, cigarettes, vehicles, hunting and poaching activities, empty bottles or glass pieces that can magnify the sun’s heat and ignite dry grass
The intensity of a veld fire is mainly influenced by the amount of fuel load such as dry grass or other moribund plant materials such as dead wood. The more the fuel loads, the higher the intensity of fire and impact, and on the other hand the wind influences the direction, speed, and spatial scale of the fire.
Fighting veld fires is a difficult and an exhaustive exercise, it can be costly and devastating. It is therefore important that farmers prepare well in advance by acquiring fire fighting equipment and ensure that they are accessible, ready, and functional. The farm roads and fire breaks should be well maintained, cleared and accessible in the event of fire fighting. Most importantly, all persons must be well informed and trained in fire fighting and lifesaving. Moreover, the neighbouring farmers and all relevant authorities should be informed. Thus, an effective communication channel should be established to ensure coordinated efforts.
It is therefore important that a fire management plan is developed and adopted in the whole farm management plan under risk management components. In addition, the plan should include aspects of fodder reserves for the animals if the forage resources are burned. Veld fires are an annual event, and farmers need to continuously prepare, be it in communal or commercial farming areas.
*Erastus Ngaruka is AgriBank’s Technical Advisor: Livestock & Rangeland

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