Namibia's Baptism of Fire After Good Rains

"/AEBA /AEB /AEBA!" cried two-year-old Matriano Boois as he tried to alert his parents that their house was going up in flames.

Matriano was playing in front of the house while his parents were braaing in the backyard when he noticed flames in a corner of the house.

At first they did not hear him calling "fire, fire!", so he ran up to them crying.

On that Tuesday afternoon of 5 October, the Boois family lost their house to a veld fire which ravaged near Rehoboth-West.

They do not know how the fire reached their home.

Wilfred Boois (34) and his family were visiting their grandfather, who lives on a farm in the area, for the weekend.

Only after Matriano started crying did Boois notice the blaze engulfing the three bedroom farmhouse, he says.

Attempts to extinguish the fire were futile, because strong winds made it uncontrollable.

"In an attempt to salvage what I could, I ran inside to try and save some belongings. But because thick smoke had already filled the room, there was not much I could do," Boois says.

One of the two generators in one of the rooms exploded.

"At this point, I called my neighbours to help me extinguish the flames, but it was too late," he says.

"My grandfather, who primarily lives on the farm, has lost everything, because the house completely burned to the ground. Currently, he lives on the farm with his caretaker in a small storage area," he says.

The Boois family home is one of many structures that have been destroyed in recent veld fires.

Outjo farmer Vipuakuje Muharukua, who is also a parliamentarian, says he has lost 3 500ha of grazing land at his farm.

According to him, 17 out of 19 camps were destroyed in a fire early last month.

"The cause is unknown to us. In fact, there seems to be accusations and counter-accusations between two neighbours as to the cause. We are licking wounds, praying that the rain will come," Muharukua says.

He says the government, through disaster risk management, should help those whose farms have been destroyed by fires.

"The Environmental Investment Fund must come on board with facilities to protect the country against raging fires, as these have a devastating impact on the environment and wildlife," Muharukua says.

Various blazes on the outskirts of Windhoek recently damaged vegetation, although City of Windhoek spokesperson Harold Akwenye says the fires have been contained.

He added that one person was burnt and was hospitalised last week.

The Omusati police confirmed that another person Hilda Nathinge was hospitalised after a fire in that region.

Yesterday another fire broke out on farms near the Otjiwarongo area.

The aftermath, though, is that people have been left homeless and animals lifeless.

The Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism reported that Namibia has recorded more than 30 veld fires countrywide, scorching 59 farms of about 143 000ha in total in the past two weeks.

This number has since increased as veld fires at Kupferberg, near the Omeya Golf Estate, were still raging after the ministry's update was released.

Fires were reported at the Outjo, Otjiwarongo, Steinhausen, Windhoek, Okahandja, Tsumeb and Tsintsabis districts, as well as in the Zambezi region.

"A massive total of 135 livestock and 75 wild animals were killed in the fire," a recent statement from the ministry reads.

A FIREFIGHTER SPEAKS

The Windhoek fire brigade has been fighting fires around the Kupferberg and Groot Aub areas, with the most recent one near Windhoek spreading in the direction of the Omeya Golf Estate on Thursday.

At some point, the fire brigade had to obtain permission through the offices of the Windhoek municipality chief executive officer and the Khomas governor to use the Namibian Police's helicopter.

Carlo Louw, assistant chief of the Windhoek Fire Brigade, says they have seen more veld fires than usual this year, and these were "intense".

He says the fires around Windhoek are on the increase.

"I think this is also as a result of the good rains we received. The grass was not burnt in the past two years, so it started accumulating. These fires are intense for a reason," Louw says.

He says the wind exacerbated the fires since there is plenty of vegetation.

"This was one of the busiest seasons we have had pertaining to veld fires. We also know this is intense, because we have had a number of fires over the last years," he says.

Omusati regional commander commissioner Titus Shikongo, who was part of the Namibian Defence Force and police team that was extinguishing a veld fire in the region last month, says extinguishing the fires was risky as members of his team were ill equipped, sometimes making use of tree branches only.

POSSIBLE CAUSES

Environment ministry spokesperson Romeo Muyunda shares Louw's sentiments, saying the good rains the country received during the previous rainy season resulted in increased vegetation and biofuel.

"To a certain extent, climate change has something to do with it," he adds.

Muyunda in an earlier statement said the fire in the Steinhausen district in the Hardap region raged for four days, causing massive destruction to properties and infrastructure such as fences and water pipes.

"Most of the fires are believed to have been caused by arsonists and charcoal burners. Fortunately, no fatalities have been reported in the last two weeks," Muyunda said.

The ministry is currently busy with a comprehensive assessment of the damage.

"The ministry continues to monitor the outbreak of forest and veld fires nationwide, based on remote sensing and aerial surveillance techniques," he says.

Muyunda says mechanical appliances such as graders, recreational activities such as picnics, smoking, and local natural resource management-related activities such as hunting, honey production and thatch-grass harvesting also contribute to the outbreak of fires.

CAUTION

The environment ministry called on the public to use fire responsibly and to clear areas around their homesteads and places of residence.

"Parents must ensure that children do not light fires without supervision. Before starting a fire, check the surroundings to assess the risk, including flammable materials, wind speed, or burning beyond the intended area," Muyunda says.

The ministry also warns charcoal makers to take preventative measures when involved in charcoal-making activities, while smokers should put out their cigarette butts properly and dispose of them in rubbish bins.

"Landowners should arrange proper cutlines and firebreaks on their land, and report wildfires to forestry offices near them," the spokesperson says.

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