Feeling The Heat

10 02 2009



                                                         Bushfire, Northern Territory, Australia


Although all natural and man-made disasters are frightening, watching the news from southern Australia this week reminded me of how I find wildfires particularly terrifying. They are extremely destructive, quite unpredictable and move very quickly. Their smoke and ash can block out the sun and travel thousands of miles. They can destroy entire towns, claim hundreds of lives and even the most sophisticated and abundant of resources struggle to contain them.


Since time began, people have conducted controlled burns to help contain the risk of wildfires. These managed fires also help eradicate disease-carrying insects and clear the land ready for new growth. Sadly, as population centres have grown and technology progressed, so we have lost touch with the land, too rarely conduct controlled burns and now pay the price with sweeping bush, forest and grass fires.


Thankfully, I have never been caught in a wildfire. I have seen amber clouds of smoke from massive forest fires in Manitoba hundreds of miles away; I have rafted past raging grassfires in the Zambezi Valley and felt the heat stinging my face, and I have seen modest bushfires in Australia singeing the Outback. But only once have I ever truly felt in danger.


The Maasai still regularly conduct controlled burns in Kenya and Tanzania. Although their ageless experience is better than any computer programme, occasionally even they fall victim to natural elements.


The glow of their fires first appeared shortly after sunset one evening as we sat around our own campfire in the Masai Mara. It was a faint line of orange in the distance, seemingly suspended in mid-air against the jet-black sky. By the following morning, the flames had been rendered invisible by the brightness of the sun, but the whispy grey smoke signalled their continued existence. Later that evening, the line was longer, the flames brighter and it was apparent that the fire was drawing closer.


We were assured we were separated from the bushfire by a dry riverbed that it wouldn’t cross, but the scent of smoke the next morning couldn’t help but leave an uneasy feeling as we set off on a day’s game viewing. Amid herds of elephant, prides of lions and a family of cheetahs, the fire was forgotten…until we returned to camp at dusk. Although not yet fully dark, the fury of the fire was already evident.


Before going to sleep, we packed our bags and readied our clothes and boots for a quick exit. The glow of the fire was visible through the tent canvas and the distant crackling clear in the still night air. Sleep proved elusive as we feared a late-night call to evacuate and run for the Landrovers.


By dawn, the hills were blackened and smoke lingered like morning mist, but the flames had either burned themselves out or moved on. Our game drive headed in that direction and we saw the area apocalyptically charred, the tufts of grass that somehow survived in a sea of black, the trees that were but ebony skeletons and the snakes that were still fleeing the hot ground.


Remarkably, the dry riverbed had indeed contained the burn just as our guides and the Maasai knew it would. There were a few, small, black patches on the opposite side but nothing that mattered. Within weeks, we were told, there would be fresh green buds and life would begin anew. Shortly, the game would return and the Maasai would bring in their cattle.


And perhaps most importantly, the risk of a devastating and uncontrollable wildfire had been reduced.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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