FIRE: FRIEND OR FOE?
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Here in the Okavango, the start of our summer coincides with the arrival of dramatic thunderstorms that light up the night skies. We’ve just been through the hottest and driest part of the year and, when you add in the activity of elephants whose favourite pastime it is to break down trees to reach their delicious branches, there’s plenty of timber lying around. Occasionally, a strike gets it just right and ta-da – a fire ensues. Fires are a natural part of every forest ecosystem, renewing, reshaping, and restoring them, and ultimately keeping them healthier. Over the millennia, however, their patterns seem to have become more intimately tied with the spread of mankind than just good old lightning strikes. Fires can start when a happy camper forgets to keep his eye on that burning toilet roll or can be intentionally lit to flush out game.
Carmine bee-eaters sit perched on a fallen tree, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Fire has been a hot topic in the news as of late. We seem to be inundated with devastating stories of them tearing through communities in California and Canada, and in 2019 the front of every newspaper included terrifying images of the Amazon burning. Before this year, I’d never seen a wildfire. When I did see one, I initially found it a terrifying and overwhelming experience – no one wants to see countless trees that could have been home to nesting birds and newborn cubs scorched blacked, and turned to ash. But there was also something beautiful in it. Carmine bee-eaters dove into the flames to catch fleeing insects, herbivores grazed in its periphery completely unfazed by the carnage surrounding them, and little mice emerged from their burrows in the burnt areas to feast on the bounty of roasted seeds left in its wake.
Relaxed tsessebe graze in the periphery of the fire.
A leopard stalks them from the undergrowth.
Speak to anyone who knows what they’re talking about and they’ll tell you that natural fires are an incredibly important part of any forest ecosystem. Many species of trees actually require fires to grow, such as utilising seeds that burst open in the presence of smoke (it’s nice to have a start to life without any competition after all!). Others have evolved fire-resistant bark and some even have flammable resins in their leaves to encourage fires to rage. These wildfires clear the underbrush, as well as the weakened and pest-riddled trees, opening up the forest floor, letting more light through the canopy, and stamping out pest populations. Without such competition, the trees that survive can grow taller and stronger, and new species can move in to occupy the forest floor. An ash-rich nutrient smoothie helps matters even further. As plant diversity increases, so too does animal diversity. In the matter of days since I saw my first wildfire, short, sweet, green grasses coated the blackened ground and there were more prey species there than anywhere else. Other than the leadwood branches that will still continue to smoulder for months after, it’s hard to believe there was a fire there at all.
Two male lions rest in the fresh new grass that sprouted up after the fires.
Small, natural fires occur annually here, cleaning up the forest floors and timber, and ultimately making sure there is less fuel for the next fire. All these benefits described above, however, disappear if the fire gets too strong. Across the planet, fires are growing larger, spreading faster, and reaching higher. Once they reach a certain size, they can leap across wet areas and engulf tree canopies, killing entire stands of forest. Pollution chokes the surrounding water, animals cannot outrun the flames, and soils are scorched black beyond repair. The Amazon is rightly known as the ‘lungs of the world’. Trees and plant matter take in the carbon dioxide that we just keep on pumping out into the atmosphere and convert it into the oxygen that keeps us alive and well. Today, however, thanks to manmade fires, the Amazon is being burnt to such an extent that it can no longer be considered a carbon ‘sink’ but rather a carbon ‘source’, which only makes matters worse.
Fires pump out carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, which makes temperatures warmer, and so fires are even more likely to occur again.
Climate change has seen temperatures become, in most of the world, significantly warmer over a rapid period of time. These warming temperatures dry out the forests and increase the frequency and intensity of their fires. When you add human mismanagement to the equation, including our desperate attempts to hinder the spread of every fire, as well as our endless fascination with starting them, then it’s a perfect storm. The Okavango without its trees is an unrecognisable habitat. The constant evapotranspiration through their leaves is the only reason the Okavango remains a fresh-water system that is able to support the abundance of life that it does. Wildfires are a natural part of a forest’s life cycle, but they must be left to do that without interference from man. It sounds scary and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be – take a vegetarian meal or ride public transport to work just one extra time this week. Switch to a renewable energy supplier or take a local holiday instead of travelling abroad. If we all started making these small and tangible changes in our lives, then the outcome won’t be so bad.
Specialist gear operator Noah Falklind filming fires.
Blog and images by Hannah Gormley