Inside Mt Kenya perennial fires and the unsung heroes

A group of fire fighters have continuously fought fire infernos at Mt Kenya forest. Photo: Standard Digital videos.
Forest fires have become more dangerous worldwide and this is largely attributed to changing weather patterns caused by global warming and human activity.

When Standard Digital Videos Visited Mt Kenya forest and met a team whose life is endeared to the well-being of the forest, it was clear that fires were disasters waiting to happen.

In 2019 alone, there have been two major fires in Mount Kenya Forest. 

On April 15, 2019, the second major fire broke out in the lower Ontulili forest and spread up to the moorland.

The fire consumed more than 120,000 hectares of vegetation and killed wildlife as blazes propelled by strong winds spread to the neighbouring Embu, Kirinyaga, Meru, Laikipia and Nyeri counties.

It is suspected that the cause of the ire was human activity although the exact activity is yet to be determined.

 Unsung heroes

There are men and women who have tirelessly battled Mount Kenya infernos without recognition. And these are truly the unsung heroes.

Mt Kenya Trust and Tropic Air have consistently led the fight to contain nearly all the fire in the forest. Such is their commitment in protecting the forest that at times they beat the government in being the first at the disaster areas.

According to Sussie Weeks, the executive Director of Mount Kenya Forest Trust,“the first sign of the fire was a message on WhatsApp".

For a Mount Kenya Trust, she says, "that generally meant we get into an emergency mood. We knew what we needed to do because we were not sure if it’s something we can put out within an hour or it was something that could have gone for a while.”

The combinations of efforts by Mount Kenya Trust and Tropical air have in the past proved fruitful for successful containing major fair. This has however has not been a walk in the park.

Extinguishing ordinary fires, let alone forest and mountain fires, is an uphill task that has its challenges and most importantly its dangers. The rangers admit at times it was is a tale of a narrow escape.

  “Ontulili fire was very dangerous. To contain the fire we had to go the tip of the mountain. But reaching there, the wind was so strong and it became dangerous to us because the fire was raging on and surrounding us. By good luck Tropical Air spotted us from their chopper and saved us,” said David Mwiraria, a ranger.

The rangers were defiant in the face of great heat as the fire raged on. Using fire beaters and jembes, and with help from water bucket drops from the air, they spent entire days scouring the vast pieces of mountain land to ensure that they were able to contain the fire.

Even as these groups endeavor to give Mount Kenya forest a lifeline, government intervention and input at time of need remain far from reach, despite the fact that it is a national resource.

According to Sussie, the cost of putting out a single fire is very high. Despite the numerous pledges offered to them as result of their commendable job, none has been fulfilled.

“We are feeding four hundred people any day we have a fire incident like the Ontulili one. The aircraft are doing between 12 and 15 hours a day… The cost is a lot almost a Sh100,000 per hour… we can’t get this done alone we need government input in order to save the forest”, she says. 

Tana River, Kenya's largest and longest river, has its source on the slopes of Mt Kenya. 

Environmentalists warn that deforestation and forest fires may affect the water catchment areas located on the Kenyan peak.

 Will the government invest in strategies that can help forest ranger put out such wild fires on time or are we as country ready to suffer drastic climatic change due lack of forest cover attributed to fires? ?

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Mount Kenya Foresttulili forestMt Kenya TrustTropic Air