As the smouldering embers of the latest wildfire fade away, the human hand kindling them is coming under scrutiny.
The fire, which turned swathes of Mt Kenya into a huge jiko, was put out on Sunday with the aid of rainfall after nine days of fighting by hundreds of officials, including the army.
The fire reportedly started near Lake Ellis in Tharaka Nithi county before spreading to parts of Embu, Laikipia and Kirinyaga counties.
It destroyed 10 per cent of the forest, decimating trees in what is becoming an annual tragedy.
A twin fire raged in the neighbouring Aberdare ranges, but Kenya Wildlife Service says it has largely been contained.
At the root of these and other fires countrywide are artificial activities driven by rainmaking beliefs, negligence and outright sabotage.
For instance, people who live near Mount Kenya and Aberdare forests have for decades believed that burning forest vegetation will generate rain.
They believe that when they burn the moorland, it catalyses the condensation of moisture and forms heavy clouds.
In some areas, honey harvesters have been accused of leaving fires unattended after extracting honey.
Also blamed for the wildfires are bhang farmers. Illegal bhang farming has been growing rapidly, offering riches to unscrupulous entrepreneurs.
A source told the Star those growing marijuana often start fires to distract forestry agencies as they harvest their crop.
However, environmentalist Muchiri Mwangi told the Star the fire could be down to tourists.
“What about the bonfires on that specific day when the fire started? It started in an open area, which is accessible to tourists. Did we have any bonfire that day?” he asked.
Mwangi dismissed the idea that farmers could be responsible for the fires, saying those planting in the lower part of Meru and Kirinyaga plant on a slope, which they clear rather than burn.
“I rule out the issue of bhang farming,” he said.
All in all, Kenya grapples with 78 fires each year on average, all started by people. Of these, 40 per cent are classified as arson, 20 per cent are caused by carelessness, and 40 per cent are due to unknown causes.
At least five forests have been struck by fire in the past month. In the last one week, fires burned parts of Menengai and Eburu forests in Nakuru county and Londiani Forest in Kericho county.
The fire also destroyed 40 acres of Seng’alo Forest, Uasin Gishu county. The other fire is the one in Mt Kenya and Aberdare regions.
At stake are the country’s forest cover and the ecology it supports. KFS puts the cover at 7.2 per cent, but experts believe is a paltry 1 per cent.
The constitution envisages a cover of 10 per cent by 2030. The government says the threshold will be met by 2022, but the forest fires put that target at risk.
The forest destruction risks increasing human-wildlife conflicts as animals are displaced from their habitat.
KWS biodiversity acting director Dr Patrick Omondi said animals, just like human beings, have instincts. “They do not wait for the fire to burn them. They use their instincts to move away,” he said.
Omondi said what is needed now is a restoration strategy to ensure the areas that went up on smoke are rehabilitated.
Water levels have also declined as a result of forest destruction, causing conflicts between various communities. These tend to escalate during droughts.
As of Thursday, the destruction on Mt Kenya was eight times more than all fires in other forests in the country combined.
KFS acting chief conservator of forests Monica Kalenda said they were investigating the cause. But she did not rule out poachers, illegal honey harvesters and bhang farmers.
She said 120 fire incidents have been reported in the country since January. More than 90,000ha of the forest, worth close to Sh1 billion, have been destroyed.
From January 1 to February 25, KFS recorded 113 forest fire incidences across the country, which have burnt 582.49ha of forests.
“Up to now, 80,000ha of moorland, 388.5 acres of grass, 93 of exotic plantations, 94 of indigenous plantation and hectares of other sections have been destroyed,” Kalenda said.
In the Mt Kenya fire, KFS announced some areas had received heavy rain, helping to put out the flames in Kirinyaga Castle Forest on the southern side of Mt Kenya National Park. However, the fire was still active in Chogoria heading northwest.
The damage caused is almost similar to the 2012 inferno, where Sh8 billion worth of vegetation was lost in Chogoria and Chuka. Tree species were lost and water catchment areas reduced in the 800ha on fire.
Last year, close to 1,000ha was damaged, compared to 7,000ha in 2017. The fires mostly rage during the dry seasons of December-March.
Most of the forests, especially the highly productive ones, including indigenous and plantations, are located in the relatively high fire-prone areas. These fires continue to be one of the biggest threats to forests.
Agencies that fought the recent fires in Mt Kenya and Aberdare include Kenya Police Service, Tropic Air, Hampton School and Community Forest Associations. Others are Mount Kenya Trust, Kenya Defence Forces and Friends of Conservation.
In Mt Kenya National Park, at least 24,710 acres of moorland was destroyed following the raging fires.
KFS said firefighting teams were employing ‘backfiring’ tactics in spirited efforts to contain the fire.
The service said fires in Ndaragwa, Kamiruri, had been suppressed by KFS with help from Community Forest Association teams.
In Geta forest, KFS said, fire is still active at Sofia area at the steep gradients. Close to 100 members of the CFA and KFS staff are still at the site fighting the fire.
The Shamata-Satima forest fire was still very active and burning towards the Central moorlands of Aberdare.
KFS said the fires are being monitored closely in conjunction with national and county administrators.
The outbreaks at the Aberdare forest are being detected and tracked via the Modis Fire Information System at the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development.
With the dry season still ongoing in some areas, more fire is expected and, therefore, the RCMRD is on high alert to detect and issue alerts through the fire information system on fire occurrence.
Alerts are normally shared Kenya Forest Service and Kenya wildlife service and beyond.
ELGEYO, TRANS NZOIA FIRES
Last year, wildfires destroyed more than 500 acres of forests in Elgeyo Marakwet and Trans Nzoia counties.
The two counties are host to Embobut and Cherangay forests, which form the 65,000ha Cherangany water tower.
Forest fires normally spread so fast due to strong winds, especially during the dry seasons of December-March.
KFS has been appealing to communities residing near forests, especially honey harvesters, to desist from starting fires haphazardly, warning this could escalate the fire outbreaks.
Elsewhere in North Rift Conservancy, the fire was spotted in Chororget private farms along Kerio valley escarpment approximately 10km from Penon Forest station, with the wind blowing smoke to Penon forest.
Residents who intend to burn any vegetation in any areas adjacent to the forest have been warned that they need to give a 48- hour written notice to the nearest Kenya Forest Service office.
In 2017, more than 17,000 acres of the Aberdares Forest was destroyed by fire. In that year, the wildfire destroyed 220 acres of indigenous trees in Menengai forest. The flames were fanned by winds, raising fears the fire could spread to the neighbouring homes.
In March 2015, more than 300 acres of the forest were destroyed. The same year, 4,000 acres of the Maasai Mau Forest was destroyed by fire. The forest is the source of Mara River. More than 10 families were left homeless and fled to Narok county.
In Seng’alo Forest, KFS officials said some fires are suspected to have been set by men living adjacent to the forest. They had served prison sentences for crimes associated with forest destruction, they said.
The fire was extinguished by residents and officers from the KWS, the KFS and the Uasin Gishu firefighting department.