15 March 2011

Kenya: War On Forest Fires Burning Millions

Nairobi — The government is losing millions of shillings fighting frequent forest fires in two key water towers in the Mt Kenya region.

The fires -- most of them started through man's carelessness -- have resulted in huge losses. The actual fire fighting has been costly besides heavy forest resource losses and displacement of wildlife.

The Kenya Wildlife Service is compiling a report on the actual cost of fighting the fires.

"It is very expensive to fight the fires, right now we have not complied the figures but it could run into millions of shillings," said KWS head of mountain conservancy Robert Njue.

The fires, especially those occurring in Mt Kenya and Aberdare forests, occur in deep rugged and hilly terrains where there are no passable roads, and where it would take firefighters several hours of trekking to reach.

Mr Njue said that in such circumstances, KWS is forced to hire a plane from Nairobi which costs over Sh150,000 per hour to fly fire fighters and supplies.

With each fire requiring about eight hours a day of flying, the department uses more than Sh2 million on aerial interventions alone.

It is estimated the damage caused to indigenous trees in the plantation zones could also run into millions of shillings.

According to KWS, the fires have assumed increased frequency in the past one month, and are believed to be started by intruders for superstitious reasons, including beliefs that the fires would trigger rainfall to end the current drought.

Others spread from private farms, as the owners prepare for the planting season, but the poorly managed fires are said to end up spreading into national reserves and game parks.

Fires started by illegal honey harvesters are usually left unattended, destroying hundreds of hectares of forest land.

Mr Njue said several fires had been fought in the past one month, with the latest -- in the Mt Kenya forest last week -- destroying more than 500 hectares.

With biting shortage of manpower, the Kenya Forest Service and KWS have been forced to rely on the provincial administration to mobilise residents to help fight the fires.

But it is the frequency of the fires that is worrying State agencies, with massive campaigns being conducted to urge communities living around the forests, against starting the destructive fires.

"We are urging the people to consider that it is very expensive to fight the fires and that they should not start them for whatever reason," said Mr Njue.

So far, only one suspect has been arrested and is likely to face charges of maliciously setting fire on a forest, which under section 54(2) of the Forest Act 2005, attracts a fine of Sh200,000 or more, or imprisonment for a term of not less than a year.

With sporadic rains returning in parts of the Aberdares and Mt Kenya, the government may get temporary reprieve as nature comes in handy in helping quench the destructive fire outbreaks.

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