THE latest data estimates that approximately 2.5 million hectares of grazing land in the country, including land on 604 farms and in many protected areas, have to date been affected by forest and veld fires.
Of this number, an estimated 487,732 hectares, which accounts for approximately 22% of the National Park’s area, have been affected by forest and veld fires in 2021 alone.
Speaking in parliament yesterday, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, said that the veld fires have resulted in the destruction of infrastructure and properties, vast grazing areas and in the loss of both human and animals.
“The frequency, intensity and extent of veld fires have become extremely prevalent across the country in 2021 due mainly to the good rainfall that was received earlier in the year, which resulted in the accumulation of a high fuel load in many parts of the country,” explained Shifeta.
To make matters worse, forest and veld fires are expected to become even more frequent and severe in the future in line with climate change predictions.
It is further estimated that approximately 635 animals have perished due to the forest and veld fires outside protected areas.
Some of the areas in fire prone regions affected since the start of this year’s fire season, which begins in May every year, include the Rehoboth District, Daan Viljoen National Park, 93% of which burned, Dordabis, Groot Aub and Oamites.
Veld fires were also reported throughout the Zambezi, Kavango East and Kavango West regions, as well as Kamanjab, Outjo and Khorixas districts in the Kunene Region.
A small portion of the Etosha National Park and the farms to the south and east of the Park, also spreading into Otjozondjupa Region, were also affected.
In the Ohangwena Region, forest fires spread from the border with Kavango West and quickly into the eastern side of Okongo Quarantine area, destroying grazing camps.
Many villages, including Ekofya, Emanya, Ka Weyulu and Onaimbungu were also burned.
About 10,500 hectares of grazing area were burned in the Ohangwena Region during the period of 17 to 19 September 2021.
In the Omusati Region, an estimated 46,944 hectares burned in the constituencies of Okahao, Otamanzi and Tsandi during the period of 15 and 20 September 2021, affecting the villages of Otoongo, Amega Onambiga, Ongaa, Onambwa, Oniipa, Oshindjumba, Okakango, Olumpelengwa, Omutambo, Otjindjumba and Onamwege.
According to the data, in the Oshana Region, an estimated 60,000 hectares of grassland areas in the Uuvudhiya Constituency burned, particularly around the villages of Oshaanda Sha Amutenya, Engombe, Omutse gwosshumba, Eno lyosshumba, Camps number 7, 8 and 9, as well as Ondulu and Oponona villages.
Despite its clear devastation, however, the minister said this year’s fires in the National Park are an improvement when compared to the 60% of total area burned in 2009 before the introduction of the patch-mosaic burning and firebreaks tool.
In 2009, wildlife lost as a result of uncontrolled veld fires in Etosha National park included 100 springboks, 50 giraffes, 35 rhinos and 25 elephants.
While the commercial farms and communal areas have been particularly badly affected by the unplanned forest and veld fires, a different approach is followed in the Etosha National Park, whereby in 2012, the ministry implemented a system of planned patch-mosaic burning and firebreaks as a tool to support conservation.
This involves the use of early burning and controlled burning of identified areas according to blocks for reduction of fuel load and to minimise hot fires spreading in the dry season.
“Once a fire occurs inside a block, it is viewed as manageable because of the preventative measures in place through existing firebreaks,” said Pohamba.
Pohamba added that it is important to note that the area burned is a combination of the early burned area during patch-mosaic burning and the burned areas because of the fires that entered from the adjacent farms to the south and east, which were contained by staff in the Park.
In line with the patch-mosaic burning approach, it is estimated that the annual burned area in the Park should be 20% to 30% of the total Park area.
Since the introduction of forest and veld fire management, said Pohamba, no wildlife mortality in the Etosha National Park was recorded.
Pohamba assured that his ministry will continues to monitor the outbreaks of forest and veld fires nationwide based on remote sensing and aerial surveillance techniques.
According to the minister, the main causes of the forest and veld fires have been charcoal production operations, mechanical appliances such as graders, recreational activities such as picnics, smokers, and local natural resource management-related activities such as hunting, honey production and thatch-grass harvesting.
Some of the challenges hampering the effective forest and veld fire prevention and control include the involvement of multiple stakeholders in forest fire fighting, the fact that gates to farms where fires are occurring are often closed and insufficient vehicles and equipment.
The hesitancy of communities to assist in firefighting efforts, and lack of water sources in some areas, as well as a lack of cut lines and firebreaks in some areas including some commercial farms have also been listed as challenges.
“Considering the fact that fires are occurring at an unacceptable frequency and intensity, and to adequately address these challenges, the Ministry reiterates our call to the public, to report any fires to the Ministry as soon as possible for swift response,” concluded Pohamba.