Hanover records reduction in bushfires, but sporadic incidents cause concern
Despite a reduction in bush fires over the last two years, the Hanover Fire Department says there is still cause for concern about illicit fires being lit by negligent and often wayward citizens.
Head of the department's Fire Prevention Unit, Courtney Nembhard, told Western Focus that the communities which still pose the main challenges, are the upland farming areas of Hopewell, sections of the Winchester sugar cane belt in Green Island and Blenheim, the birthplace of National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante.
"The bush fires are the ones that are still leading. I would say about 75 per cent of the fires have been bush fires - even though we have a reduction in numbers - and a vast reduction too, in areas where we have done the Community Safety Fire Monitor Training. We have done the training in March Town, Kingsvale Cauldwell, Cascade, two groups in Chester Castle, Upper Rock Spring and Chambers Pen, in Jericho too. These were the most problematic areas. In all of them we have seen marked reduction," he said.
"We had done training in Hopewell but it was in the housing scheme areas. We are still having some problems in the upland areas of Hopewell, not only with fires, but with false calls," Nembhard added.
In 2009, the Hanover Fire Department reported a 300 per cent increase in fires in the parish due to what it said was a dramatic increase in bush fires, which occurred within the first four months of the year. That year, 430 genuine fire calls were reported. Previously, between January 1 and April 12, 2006, the department responded to 263 fire calls, 80 per cent of which were bush fires. The department also responded to 46 bush fires in January 2011 alone.
reasons for fires
Nembhard said during the training exercises, there were various reasons given for the illicit fires being deliberately lit in some of the communities.
"One was a myth in the Claremont/Jericho area, where many people believed that once we light fires, smoke would go up, form clouds and rain would come down. Most of them were because of carelessness though, especially in the Mt. Peace area, where when the (Hanover) Parish Council does not conduct de-bushing exercises, as a method of cleaning the roadside, persons who use the roadway light the shrubs along the road. Otherwise, some of them are just mischievous," he said.
"What we hear on the ground (in Winchester), is that most times, the cane fires are done by arsonists who want work to cut the cane," he added.
In further explaining the effect of the Community Fire Safety Monitor training, Nembhard said farmer training and onsite farm visits, in collaboration with the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) had made an impact on the farmers especially in Cascade, who were, often times in the past, conducted slash and burn activities, and in many cases, became victims of those very fires.
"That was the main reason for bush fires in that area (Cascade). What we did along with RADA, was to show them the effect of burning the land before planting, the depletion and so forth of the land and the environmental effect. Some of them lost a lot of crops because of the fires that they have lit," Nembhard explained.
"We do have reductions in other areas by about 65 to 70 per cent. Since we have trained, especially in Cascade, we have not had one single bush fire since. Cascade is our most active group and most of the persons that were trained there, were farmers, so the slash and burn part of clearing land is a thing of the past there," he said.
Nembhard said his unit was in the process of compiling a comprehensive fire report covering the last 10 years, to determine the most fire-vulnerable communities in the parish. He said more than 400 people across the parish have been trained and certified as Community Fire Safety Monitors. Just last week, 56 persons from Seventh-day Adventist Churches were similarly certified.
He said his department was focused on public education and fire-prevention training, as opposed to prosecution, especially since the fines under the Country Fires Act were very small and not very prohibitive.
"Even if persons are prosecuted, the fines are so meagre ... we prefer to educate about prevention," he said.
In its June 2014 Performance Audit Report of the Jamaica Fire Brigade, the Auditor General's Department stated that the brigade utilised a significant amount of its resources to fight brush and debris fires.
"Over the seven-year period, 2007-08 to 2013-14, JFB responded to 78,734 genuine fire calls - 76 per cent (59,861) related to brush and debris (refuse dump/rubbish) fires. Brush fires account for 63 per cent (49,500); while, debris fires account for 13 per cent (10,361)," the report said.
The report noted that public education to encourage citizens to desist from the illegal activity may have contributed to a five per cent decrease in brush/debris fires over the period 2007-08 to 2013-14.
"The rate is still a cause for concern, as JFB could channel the resources, used to respond to these calls, to other operational areas for greater efficiency," the Auditor General's report noted.