When is a fire not a fire?………… Interesting observations I have made and learnt during our time here.
I was always alarmed and upset witnessing so many plumes of smoke, swirling dramatically up into the darkening skies, whilst driving in the South Western & South Eastern areas of the Kruger Park.
After living here for the most part of 2019 its a comfort to learn that most of these fires are not in fact bush fires.
This part of the Kruger is bordered by farms, mostly, on which Sugar Cane is cultivated. (There are also Macadamia Nut Plantations as well as Bananas & Papayas. Macadamias, incidentally, are becoming a much favoured commodity and many farms are moving over to this crop). When the Sugar Cane is mature the fields are set alight one by one, in small pockets, from March to October (I stand corrected as we were not living here before that but noticed the cane still very green and young during the rainy season and there are now, mid September, a few farms with the crop ready to be burnt ).
The fires are ferocious, loud, crackling, swirling & spiralling sooty smoke high into the air. Duration is approximately half an hour (as a matter of interest the sticks remain unharmed, are chopped down – usually by hand – the following day , gathered up by machinery all night & hauled away in long high sided trucks to the Sugar Mills closeby, for processing into the sugar we eat, within a few days) . All this pollution is clearly seen from within Kruger.
We began feeding the birds and a mongoose (perhaps two – they are very skittish so spotting was like flash lightening) about one week before the harvest outside our apartment and still do a month later as we wonder what they live off when their food source is suddenly cut off. I’ve just peeped outside the window now and to see the cane (grass)….. it is already 50 cm tall!!!
What has this to do with fires in Kruger you are asking?
Bushfires are common in South Africa, especially between May and October, being winter which is a very dry season. It has been established that the Kruger National Park falls within the African Savannah biome where fire is extremely important in shaping the landscape.
Drawing on many years of fire research in Kruger, park management adopted a new fire policy in 2002, which encourages the setting of early season fires (April to June) to break up the fuel load and allow for lower intensity fires.
Every year park management uses data gathered from more than 500 vegetation monitoring sites to determine where and what percentage of the park should be burnt, as well as the preceding two years’ rainfalls determines the target percentage to burn in each section.
Areas that have produced grass coverage of over four tones per hectare are considered to be ecologically necessary to be burnt back.
When the year’s fire regime has been worked out, section rangers set fires at the beginning of winter in chosen locations to break up the veld into a patch mosaic.
This scattering of burnt and unburnt sections reduces the risk, and even prevents, runaway fires that may occur later in the season which are not planned by the Park Authorities.
Burning earlier in the year also makes for cooler fires, which are less likely to turn saplings into multi-stemmed trees and allow for trees to recruit into the next height class.
When the lightning season starts (Summer) Rangers will generally discontinue setting fires to allow lightning a chance to contribute as one of the natural sources of fire. This season usually runs from October to December. The lightening storms are incredible to watch and are so intense due to the extremely high temperatures experienced in these months when the bush is still crisp and emaciated after dry winter months.
Only a few Savannah plant species are fire sensitive with most being fire tolerant. We must not worry too much about the lives of the wildlife as they can hear, feel and smell a fire when it is still very far away and most mammals normally have enough time to escape.
Snakes and many insects escape into holes in the ground, where they are safe, because the heat from the fire seldom penetrates the soil deeper than five centimeters.
It is incredible how quickly nature responds to being burnt and how animals benefit in many ways. Even without rain the grass grows new shoots within days. The animals lick the mineral rich ash and browsers feed on the new shoots which have a much higher nutrient content.
I never used to look out for animals on these routes, what seemed to me desolate areas, but now realise how many predators creep through and find prey easily due to the clear visibility. It also puzzles me how their paws cope with the sharp prickles of the burnt vegetation (have you ever walked barefoot after the heat of the fire has abated.
As a farm girl we used to love playing in the burnt fields – now I have to wonder why….. sore punctured feet and filthy dirty clothing & exposed skin – our poor mothers). The fires on our farms in Rhodesia were often set by terrorists or natural veld fires set off by a piece of glass reflecting the suns rays onto the tinder dry grass.
I shall not go on to discuss pollution or global warming with regards to the fires as these are subjects outside of my general knowledge – however they always mentioned by followers when I post photographs on my Facebook & Instagram Pages.
I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR WHAT YOU THINK, FEEL & KNOW HOW THEY AFFECT OUR ENVIRONMENT ………… Thank you