A FEW weeks ago, Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in participating in a national week of fire awareness campaigns. The story of fire, which has become part of human survival, can never be told without revisiting the history of fire. This is important in gathering comprehensive knowledge regarding the path human beings have trodden, establishing one of the most formidable relationship with fire, from time immemorial.
By Peter Makwanya
Before human habitation on earth, fire played a critical role in plant adaptations including ecosystem distribution.
Fire as a heat source and lighting ingredient has been available throughout the history of the planet, before electricity come in as a world acclaimed form of energy.
The origins of fire can be traced back to about 540 million years but its resilience has made it grow and glow with the rise in the atmospheric oxygen from the Devonian to the late carboniferous epochs.
This is when the peak of 31% atmospheric oxygen compared with the current 21%, greatly facilitated combustion, even in the presence of high levels of moisture.
The history of fire has been consistent since vegetation populated the landscapes and had a major ecosystemic function.
The early hominids are said to have spread out of Africa, distributing their fire technology which promoted the dispersal of humans allowing them to colonise colder environments as well as protecting them from predators.
While humans altered fire regimes since early history, recent decades have been marked by rapid fire outbreak changes as a result of a significant shift in human populations and settlement patterns.
This is in reference to the overall growth, socioeconomic factors and land management scenarios cutting across the planet.
In this regard and context, this is how wildfires have shaped the world since time immemorial. As human beings, our livelihood story is incomplete if we choose to understand it only in terms of adaptations and ecosystem distribution without including fire as a process and a critical element in the natural history of our planet.
Although humans have adopted fire to their own uses, it requires correct handling as it has proved to be very helpful but more destructive than its intended use. Therefore, there is need for better human understanding of the broad framework of fire, its relationships with land management and the sustainability of natural ecosystems, as a balancing factor if used appropriately.
Compounding the fire hazard issue is the association between fire and the human-induced climate change.
Climate change, with its potential for increasing the frequency of extreme droughts and high temperatures, happen to enhance the spread and outbreaks of fire.
As a result of wildfires becoming severe around the world in recent years, intensive awareness campaigns need to be accelerated.
Spearheading fire conversations based on outreach programmes need to be at the heart of sustainable development and mitigation in this country.
Unsustainable long-term internalised behaviours such as burning bushes anyhow, when clearing land for agricultural purposes including an insatiable desire for hunting need to be corrected.
Too many untoward behaviour, lack of knowledge and information are contributing to the scourge of fire outbreaks which at the same time presents challenges in controlling the raging fires.
Over the years, human activities, which contribute to global warming, have culminated in climate change which also increases the possibility of fire outbreaks even without anyone starting the fire.
Research evidence attributes the increase in fire outbreaks to climate change as having a direct impact on the frequency and magnitude of wildfires.
A warmer climate means that the bulk of vegetation will dry up, thereby becoming targets for biomass and fuels. These are compounded by prolonged periods of droughts, low rainfall patterns and moisture stress, among others.
The long fire seasons being witnessed worldwide are also attributed to climate change. Therefore, long fire seasons mean that there will be increased amounts of smoke and other burnt impurities having direct impact on the ozone layer.
As the climate continues to warm, forest pests also increase including their hardening and resilience too.
In this regard, fire education and awareness need not to be seasonal but ongoing in order to make communities vigilant and increase their knowledge and ability to handle fire outbreaks and disasters. The increasing human settlements in the former white-owned farms and the excitement which goes along with acquiring and owning a piece of land have led to many cases of fire outbreaks that are fatal.
Unfortunately, when these fires are started, the untrained communities do not know how best to contain them.
The effects of climate change on the vegetation cover and fire regimes need to be fully understood in the context of fire education and awareness for sustainable development.
When fire is let loose and poorly managed, it has dire consequences such as destruction of forests, property, loss of human lives and may result in loss of wildlife too.
Therefore, it is in the best interest of the nation at large for responsible authorities to make fire protection action plans not only for farming communities but also for the forests where possible.
Fireguards should not be confined to farming areas as fire outbreaks from the forests can advance towards farming areas and cause wide-spread damage.
For this reason, responsible authorities should not only be seen in public during commemoration days but need to be visible always reminding communities about the need to avoid unnecessary fire and how to manage it.
One major undoing is that, many authorities love the limelight, appearing on television during commemoration days but soon after they disappear and wait for the next occasion in the following year.
The real essence of fire management, education and awareness is not grandstanding or mere glossing over issues.
Fire management systems have also been boosted by the availability of relevant technologies — early warning and detection systems, internet, mobile phones and social media outlets. These have made available information and fire awareness messages in the comfort of people’s homes at law costs.
Mainstreaming fire in agricultural practices could provide the tonic that the balancing of the ecosystems requires.
Communities need fire literacy for them to know when to or when not to start a fire. This fire literacy should be cost effective and considered a human right too.
Finally, while it is easy to start a fire, normally it is a long and difficult process to rehabilitate and restore lost forests. This could take many years to come to fruition especially when climate change is raging.