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5 September 2019

The fires in south-central Africa

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Nasa satellite imagery shows that there are more fires in south central African countries such as Zambia and Malawi, amongst others, than there are in the Amazon. What is going on there?

(Picture above) Fire on Mount Mulanje, close to one of our project restoration plots which was not affected by it thanks to the firebreaks that were installed. ©WeForest

Annual farmland fires…

Matthias, our Zambia and Malawi Country Director, points out that these fires happen annually. Part of the fires is set deliberately by farmers wanting to clear farmland and open up their field in preparation for a new planting season and to avoid succession by trees. These fires temporarily fertilize poor or sandy soils.

However, he adds that the Nasa map shows that there is a fire hotspot in several countries amongst which Zambia and Malawi. “The fires have spread from farmland to Miombo woodland, a vegetation type dominated by trees.”

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Satellite picture of 05/09/19. For a live satellite picture go here. ©NASA

… spreading to forests

While these regions used to be predominantly Miombo woodland, the yearly burning does not allow for sufficient regeneration of trees that are in an early restoration stage. “The intensity of the heat is too much for the small trees, especially with late burning,” Matthias explains. Moreover, high temperatures, strong wind, and drought make forests much more vulnerable and so fires can spread beyond expectations.

Firebreaks

“In most areas, these fires spread from farmland to forest as well due to a lack of firebreaks or gaps in vegetation that help to slow or stop burning. Luckily, the areas we work in all have firebreaks. There was a fire, for example, close to our restoration plot on Mount Mulanje, Malawi that did not touch our trees thanks to these breaks,” he says.

Of course, firebreaks don’t work when forests are lit on purpose as poachers sometimes do, though. “In that case, they want to attract mammals to the fresh grass that occurs after an area has been burnt.”