News / Africa

Fighting Fire with Fire

African savannah wildfire (Credit: World Agroforesrtry Center)
African savannah wildfire (Credit: World Agroforesrtry Center)

Multimedia

Audio
Joe DeCapua
In African savannahs, or grasslands, wildfires can either be destructive or beneficial. It all depends on when those fires occur. Scientists at the World Agroforestry Center have developed a system to determine the best time to set the savannahs ablaze.


Savannahs stretch across many parts of Africa. But scientists concentrated their research on grassland conditions similar to the Sahel and South Sudan. When wildfires spread uncontrolled, the heat and flames can cause damage on several levels.

“Many components of the ecosystem can be affected. The biodiversity itself, the soil composition and structure and gas emission and greenhouse gas emission into the atmosphere,” said Cheikh Mbow, senior climate change scientist with the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Fire is seen as one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in some ecosystems. And it contributes widely to the reduction of the ecosystem services, which [are] the basis of most of the livelihoods in Africa in poverty conditions. So we are worrying about fire because of the many impacts and implications for the human beings.”

Fires in savannahs are common.

“If you look at African images from [a] satellite in the dry season, it appears that most of the ecosystem, which has some level of dryness, will have fires on a regular basis. There have been many attempts in the past, since colonial time actually, to, sort of, ban fire in our ecosystem, but they never succeeded. They never succeeded because fire is a tool,” said Mbow.

Fire is used as a tool by local populations, for instance, when they’re gathering honey, clearing land or desiring new vegetation growth. Mbow says nearly all of the fires in the savannahs are caused by humans. Nature plays a very small role.

“The conditions in which natural fire can occur [are] when lightning happens, for instance. In Africa, when lightning happens in these tropical areas that’s a period during which we have rain. It’s wet. When it’s raining, that’s the time we have lightning, and it’s very unlikely that when it’s raining fire can take place,” he said.

With climate change, he said, there’s concern the savannahs will become even more dry, making destructive wildfires much more likely.

That’s why scientists at the World Agroforestry Center and their partners developed a system to pinpoint the best times to intentionally set fires. It’s known as early burning. It consumes layers of biomass before they build-up to highly combustible levels. Efforts to prevent fires altogether can actually make things worse.

“If you protect this area for five years, let’s say, or 10 years, you’ll have a dangerous amount of biomass. Fire not only consumes the biomass, it also destroys all the characteristics of the ecosystem, which makes this ecosystem viable. I’m thinking about microorganisms in the soil, small animals. So it’s a bit dangerous to over protect the ecosystem,” he said.

So an early burn, Mbow said, needs to be done when the conditions are just right – not too wet or not too dry. Fires intentionally set at that time not only consume the biomass, but prevent dangerous fires later in the season.

“There are many factors in determining fires. The one factor is the grass moisture, but also the grass load. The biomass load is extremely important. The second important factor is the atmospheric parameters – air temperature and wind. And the third one is the topography. If you are in heavy conditions, it’s very risky sometimes to use fire. As they go uphill they become stronger and very difficult to control. So there are many, many aspects which should be in consideration. And there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all situation.”

The early burns are generally fast moving and stay mainly on the surface. They cause only minor damage to trees, soil nutrients or microorganisms.

The recommendations for controlled fires in African grasslands can be found in the February issue of the Journal for Arid Environments. Mbow said that he hopes African governments will consider implementing them. However, he added, few countries on the continent currently have resources for fire management.

You May Like

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs