News / Africa

Fighting Fire with Fire

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

Multimedia

Audio
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid