I have always had a healthy respect for fire – and a certain fascination with it. Watching flames (of a candle or fireplace) can be calming and beautiful. I cook on a gas stove (here and in Pittsburgh before I came.) On the other hand, having a huge fire near your house is much more of a concern!
This is the dry season, so, as I mentioned last year, people burn the brush. Again, this year, I asked why. I got some of the same answers as last year. It is the tradition and it cleans up an area. Those who hunt field rats do it to chase out the animals to kill. Having no underbrush makes hunting easier. And, for herders, burning the brush clears the way for the growth of tender shoots which the animals like. Most of those answers do not apply for the area around my house. Yet, this afternoon, someone burned the area behind the house. I watched mesmerized – and hoping that the flames would not cross the very short, dry grass between the fire and my house. It didn’t get out of control and didn’t burn everything. Taller, greener plants and trees remain.
Here are some photos. I could hear the cracking before I could see many flames. Then it would seem to die down a little until it hit another big clump of dry brush. Flames were often 10-15 feet in the air! In the US we would have been working to put it out. In about 30minutes, an area the length of a football field was burned. (I don’t know how wide the area was since I didn’t want to go closer to investigate!)
Still, not all burns are this successful. If the wind picks up (which it often does in this season), the fire can go in unexpected directions and get out of control. Two of the Village School Program villages had such a problem. In the first case, one of the teacher’s children died in a house when the brush fire got out of control and burned the house. In the second village, the “hangar” (the open-sided classroom with a thatched roof) burned. The parents cannot yet rebuild it because the whole area burned and there is no grass to use as thatch until the rains come again. Fortunately, parents were able to save the chalk boards and student table/benches. They have made an arrangement with the local Lutheran church to hold classes inside until repairs can be made. (You might think that classes could still be held outside because it is not currently raining, but the sun is too hot!)
I wonder about the environmental impact of these fires. In addition to the bush, people also burn some trash and piles of leaves. (No, leaves don’t fall as cold weather comes, but they do fall because of dryness.) In the USA, people used to burn trash and leaves. Most communities now have ordinances against burning – to protect property and the environment, I think. On the other hand, the forest service often now allows natural fires to burn without trying to put them out – as a natural part of forest life. I wonder if anyone has studied the effects of burning the bush in Central Africa to determine its pros and cons. I know that it is the tradition here and would be hard to change if research recommended it – despite occasional tragedies.
Fortunately, during the fire near my house most of the smoke blew the other way. Fortunately, too, it served its purpose without getting out of control. I will end by saying that I was fascinated to watch the fire. Maybe I was just thinking of those of you in cold climates who might be sitting by a fireplace fire on these very snowy, cold days where you are!