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

Video British Fighters on Frontline of ISIS Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Pakistan's Political Turmoil Again Shines Spotlight on Military

Thousands of protesters calling for PM Sharif to step down continue protests in front of parliament, as critics fear political impasse could spur another military coup More

Photogallery Ebola Quarantines Spark Anxiety in Liberian Capital

Food prices rise sharply as residents attempting purchases clash with security forces, leaving one person dead More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid