Fire fighters are struggling to save two of the country’s most important water towers – Mt Kenya Forest and the Aberdares range from raging flames.
Less than two months after the Kenya Forest Service warned that the country’s water towers were in danger of fire outbreaks due to prolonged dry weather, that danger has come to pass, and fire has already caused massive damage to the area.
For the past week more than 80 square kilometres of grassland in the moorland section of the Mt Kenya forest have been consumed by raging fires. And two days ago, fire broke out in the Aberdares forest, further stretching firefighting efforts spearheaded by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the KFS.
The two agencies are ill-prepared to respond to such emergencies, and since the fires broke out, they have heavily relied on the communities neighbouring the forests to contain the infernos.
Lack of oxygen
Never mind that the communities are just as ill- prepared and have to be taken away from the fire scene every 24 hours to rest a recover from lack of oxygen because of the high elevation.
KFS Nyeri zonal manager Muchiri Mathinji said more than 200 community members had been mobilised, but they had to be replaced every 24 hours to deal with exhaustion.
“We are facing challenges because the fire fighters have to trek for over eight hours to reach the scene of the fire and have to be replaced due to the harsh conditions,” he said.
Ideally, forest fires are best fought with water-carrying Bambi helicopters that spray the liquid on the fire and are able to refill from lakes in the vicinity.
Fighting fires with human hands alone is a herculean task, as has been demonstrated with the fires taking close to a month to put out.
Mr Mathinji said new fires were breaking out daily due to strong winds, that on Saturday pushed the fire upwards towards Ontoriri area in Meru County.
The fire initially started in Narumoru in the Central Highlands and has spread to several other sections like Nanyuki and Gathiru more than a week after it erupted for the second time in as many months fire fighters have not been able to contain it.
The firefighters, who use basic tools like rubber flippers and backpack fire extinguishers, have been forced to resort to traditional methods like clearing vegetation to create fire breaks to keep the fires from spreading to new areas.
Mr Mathinji said the fire fighters were on Saturday forced to work overnight to clear a section of a bamboo plantation to create a buffer zone after the blaze threatened to spread from the moorland, which is basically grassland, to the bamboo and onto the indigenous forest.
Fires in the indigenous forests are hard to contain because they spread faster, and conservationists are also wary of the grievious harm to the environment such destruction would cause.
The fire has been burning at about 3,200 metres above sea level, with firefighters taking up to eight hours to walk to the scene, after being dropped at a point beyond which vehicles cannot go.
But KFS officials said the fire had been blown farther up mountain by strong winds to between 3,600 and 4,600 metres, where a team of 30 firefighters has delivered by KWS helicopter, according to Mr Mathinji.
The extent of the fire in the Aberdares could not be established yesterday. KFS head of Central Highlands John Wachihi said he was on his way to the scene after being told the fire had come very intense.
“All I can say is that the fire will pose a challenge to put out because it is bigger that what has been there in Mt Kenya forest,” he said.
Mr Maumo said the fire could have been started by poachers or bhang cultivators.
“We suspect these fires are being started by arsonists so as to divert attention,” he said.
Mr Maumo said he could not immediately establish the extent of the damage of the Aberdares blaze, which was also burning in the moorland, saying he needed more time to study its progression. But he said two teams had been sent to the ground to help fight the fire.
The Aberdares range is important because it provides water to most hydroelectric dams in the country and is the main supplier of water to Nairobi residents.