Wild theory behind annual raging fires eating away Mt Kenya forest

Friday March 01 2019

A belief backed by an unproven scientific theory and illegal human activities continue to endanger one of Kenya's critical water towers.

For decades, locals living around Mt Kenya and Aberdare forests believed that burning forest vegetation attracts rain and each year thousands of hectares of forest land are lost, endangering both human and wildlife population.


It is theorised that burning the moorland section of the forest catalyses condensation of moisture to form heavy clouds, causing rain. "Some people believe it makes the clouds heavier. It is all superstition, which occasions more destruction than the intended good," environmentalist Muchiri Mwangi told the Saturday Nation. Going by weather patterns in the mountain region, January and February are usually dry months but a few millimetres of rain hit the region as March approached. When the rains fail to fall soon enough, some opt to use fire to try and force it tom come.

Every year, due to this belief and human activities inside the forests, Kenya Forest Service and Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers find themselves battling huge fires every February.

While over the years most fires have been contained in good time, this year the damage has been growing by the minute for the past one week.


Earlier last month, KFS issued a fire alert, recalling all rangers from leave in anticipation of fires, but evidently little was done to prevent them. Rangers were expected to put up fires around the mountain but with the shortage in personnel and vast amounts of ground to cover, it was too little too late to prevent the destruction.

More than 100,000 hectares of forest land has been destroyed by wild fires so far and the blaze was raging on by Friday.

The inferno that reportedly started near Lake Ellis in Tharaka-Nithi County has spread to parts of Embu, Laikipia and Kirinyaga counties.


Four helicopters, 120 men and women from Community Forest Association (CFA), KFS officers, Kenya Wild Service (KWS) officers, Rhino Ark and The David Sheldrick teams have pitched camp inside the forest for the past one week battling the fast-spreading flames.

Optimism among the teams battling the wild fires has been tested to the limit and with the fire spreading, most are praying for a miracle downpour to save wildlife and endangered indigenous trees.

Kenya Forest Service Chief Conservator Monica Kalenda said 114 fire incidents had been reported in the country since January.

She said more than 90,000 hectares of forest worth close to Sh1 billion has been destroyed so far and that the fire in Mount Kenya National Park was still wreaking havoc.

As of Thursday, the destruction on Mt Kenya was eight times more than all fires in other forests in the country combined.

“Up to now, 80,000 hectares of moorland, 388.5 acres of grass, 93 of exotic plantations, 94 of indigenous plantation and hectares of other sections have been destroyed,” said Ms Kalenda.

The damage is almost similar to the 2012 inferno where Sh8 billion worth of vegetation was lost. Last year, close to 1,000 hectares was damaged compared to 7,000 hectares in 2017.


However, so bad is the fire this year that the smoke from the blaze partially blocked the sun, causing an eclipse-like phenomenon in parts of Nyeri. In fact, residents noticed that ashes from the fire were ending up in their homes.

"We have not seen a forest fire this big that it blocked the sun. The ash is even falling on our homes," Robert Kimani, a resident of Nyeri, noted.

She said they were keen to put out the fire on the side of Embu, Laikipia and Tharaka Nithi counties any time from tomorrow but it was almost impossible to battle the one on the canopies of the Kirinyaga County side because the area is not accessible by ground and there was a strong wind making it impossible to use choppers.

The KFS boss said investigations were underway to establish the cause of the fire but they were not ruling out poachers, illegal honey harvesters and bhang farmers as some of the possible causes of the fire.

Tharaka-Nithi County Commissioner Beverly Opwora asked more locals to volunteer to fight the fire, noting that the county security team would strategise on how to respond to such emergencies.