More than 500 acres of agricultural lands torched...losses could run into half a billion dollars
The bush fires that for nearly two weeks have been sweeping across hilly sections of Mavis Bank in east rural St Andrew have already torched more than 500 acres of agricultural lands resulting in losses estimated at close to $200 million to coffee farmers alone.
That's according to a preliminary assessment conducted by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority released by the agriculture ministry yesterday.
And with fresh fires flaring up across three other communities by mid-afternoon yesterday - despite assurances that they were under control - state minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Luther Buchanan, has cautioned that the total losses for all agricultural produce could climb to as much as $500 million.
"Quite possibly in terms of where we are with the estimates," Buchanan said in reference to the projected half a billion dollars in agricultural losses.
However, during a visit to some of the worst-affected areas yesterday with State Minister for Local Government Colin Fagan and Mayor of Kingston Senator Angela Brown-Burke, Buchanan said despite the huge financial losses, coffee farmers may have dodged a bullet.
"In my discussions with the coffee industry people, they indicated that 80 per cent of the coffee were already reaped, and what was left was about 20 per cent," he asserted.
But while Buchanan painted a bleak outlook for farmers, Fagan sought to give an assurance that the fires, which residents said have been burning since March 2, were under control.
"Clearly, we are on this tour and you can see for yourself that it is under control ... ," Fagan told reporters during a stop in the community of Content Gap.
Minutes after that statement, however, the sport utility vehicle (SUV) transporting the junior local government minister was brought to a halt along the Mavis Bank main road, in the community of Guava Ridge, by a massive blaze that flared alongside the roadway.
Traffic was backed up for several minutes as firefighters, who were part of the tour, tried desperately to create a safe passage for the minister's SUV.
It soon became clear that the equipment they were carrying was no match for the fire.
"We are losing it, we are losing it (the battle with the fire)," one firefighter shouted to his colleagues before Fagan's SUV sped through the searing heat from the fire.
Amid complaints from residents that the Government has been tardy in responding to their plight, Brown-Burke defended the Government's handling of the situation, pointing out that relief agencies have been on the ground in the various communities carrying out their assessment.
"People want to hear everything right away, but they can't. When you come and you speak before you've really had a chance to asses is really just a PR (public relations) moment, and we are a responsible Government," she underscored.
"But it's not that we are not aware or we not doing anything," she insisted.
Told of cases where farmers complain that all they could do was watch their crops go up in smoke, the mayor told The Gleaner, "I would want us to start with how we came to the fire, and what change in behaviour would be needed to prevent a recurrence."
Brown-Burke declined to speculate on what caused the fire, but insisted that the residents know, and appealed to them to discontinue "some of the practise" they have been engaged in for years - a veiled reference to the burning their refuse.