Robert Lalah, Staff Reporter
A bush fire rages out of control in the hills of St. Elizabeth last week. - Photos By Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer
THERE IS a crisis of gargantuan proportions now brewing in the normally serene southern parish of St. Elizabeth. Fast-spreading bush fires, made worse by incessant drought conditions, have overrun the parish, causing immeasurable damage to agricultural crops and to the lifestyles of many of its residents.
The destructive bush fires have created a domino effect that has affected everyone. From farmers to market vendors, consumers to civil servants, no one in the parish has been spared the wrath of the fiery predator.
The Gleaner last Thursday and Friday visited the affected parish, ironically called the 'Breadbasket of Jamaica', and took an in-depth look at just how far-reaching the problem really is.
It was a bumpy, arduous journey that took the news team high into the hills of St. Elizabeth, to a quaint pastoral community called Tryall, where for months, residents have been trying all they can to survive, following a series of devastating bush fires that completely wiped out many acres of agricultural crops.
Lunette Gayle, a rotund woman in her mid-50s, was in a pensive mood, as she led the team up a nearby mountain, to show us the charred landscape where acres of thriving crops once lay. At the pinnacle of the mountain, the destruction caused by the fires was obvious. The blackened ground went on for miles. Residents estimate the worst affected area at 800 acres. Slowly, the gathering of farmers affected by the tragic fires grew, and the reality of the devastation became clear.
"Is our only way to make a living. I don't know nothing else. All of us here are farmers, and the fire mash up all of us," said Mrs. Gayle. Her crops, which included everything from scallion, watermelon, potato and sweet pepper, were all lost in the massive fire that burned for two consecutive weeks in early March. Everything, even animals, were quickly engulfed by the flames. Mrs. Gayle estimates the cost of 150 chickens which she lost in the fire at $50,000. The value of the crops she lost, however, is in excess of $150,000.
Now the community of farmers is a shadow of what it once was. The residents, who are accustomed to a life marked by hard work and self-reliance, have nothing to do but sit idly in the shade of withering guango trees and pray for rain.
FINANCES RUNNING THIN
"If rain don't fall soon, we not going to survive," said Mrs. Gayle.
It has not rained significantly in the parish since the start of the year, and residents say their finances are running thin. From food to medical supplies, the earnings from the now destroyed crops were earmarked for a variety of important uses.
"I am very sick. I owe more than $30,000 at the hospital and now I don't have any way to pay for it," Mrs. Gayle added with a note of despair in her voice.
The tales surrounding the massive fire which burned relentlessly for two weeks, read like the pages of a horror novel. The residents readily recalled details of their experiences running back and forth with buckets of water (water they were saving for the crops) to try and save nearby homes from the approaching flames.
As the fire grew, the smoke got increasingly difficult to bear and several persons got sick and had to be rushed to hospital. One resident, an elderly farmer, suffered a heart attack, as he witnessed his cops being overtaken by the fire. Now, like soldiers preparing for war, residents of Tryall have prepared large drums of water which they have lined up in front of their homes. These drums, they say, are "for when the fire start again."
But the devastation does not begin and end in Tryall. In fact, there are ramifications of the massive bush fires in this small rural community, to be felt across the entire island. The crops being cultivated in Tryall were to be sold in markets as far away as Kingston, Linstead in St. Catherine, and Montego Bay, St. James. In fact, it was not until The Gleaner team visited the Black River market in the parish, that the reality of the destruction caused by the bush fires hit home.
Normally buzzing with activity, the market last Friday was virtually deserted. Daughter Lynn, a self-proclaimed veteran vendor, showed noticeable distress as she pointed to the almost empty market. "Look at the stall! Is a disgrace. I can't get nothing to buy because everything burn up!" she exclaimed.
Daughter Lynn noted that before the destructive fires began wreaking havoc in the area, she would have spent $40 to buy a pound of yam to resell in the market. Now, she is being forced to fork out in excess of $80 for the same amount.
Also, before the fires, she paid $5per pound for cucumber. Now the price has skyrocketed to $50 per pound. This, she said, is pushing away her customers in droves.
"Nobody coming back to the market. When we buy the food for so much and have to add on our piece to sell back, di people dem not going to buy," she said.
The empty stalls and quiet surroundings were testament to the woman's words. Daughter Lynn noted that she has had to drastically slash her mark-up on the produce, just to get rid of them. Now she is only able to make an average of $5 on every pound of cucumber she sells. So bad is the problem that Daughter Lynn has decided to abandon her 35-year-old career. "I really going to stop coming back to sell in the market. This just don't spell sense," she said.
Wavellyn Brown, another market vendor, said her mother's home in Retrieve, St. Elizabeth, was recently destroyed by a bush fire. "Everything gone, down to the goats she have burn up," she lamented.
OUTLOOK FOR FUTURE
And with all the talk of fires and the likelihood of more to come, the outlook for the future of the remaining farm lands took a dismal turn when The Gleaner visited the Black River Fire Station. There, Trevor Powell, the acting assistant superintendent, furrowed his brow as he explained why the engine of the only fire truck parked in the yard was being disassembled by a group of mechanics.
"That unit is the only one that was operational in the entire parish," he said. "We, however, used it to respond to a fire yesterday and the water pump stopped working."
The fireman pionted out that if any fire broke out in the parish that day, they simply could not respond. "Well, if we get a call today, we would be forced to explain to the residents that there is nothing that we can do. We would have to ask them to try and help themselves," he admitted.
The department responded to over 400 bush fires since the start of the year, and the firemen are now weary.
"It really is very difficult. We have no breathing apparatus, so it is even more difficult," Mr. Powell added. "Then, when we are unable to respond, the residents tend to blame us, thinking that it is our fault, but it really is not."
Not the least of the problems being caused by bush fires in St. Elizabeth is the fact that the parish, known for its picturesque landscape, is slowly being deforested. Many of the once attractive hillsides are now blackened ghosts of what they once were. Treasure Beach, the hub of tourism in the parish, has been greatly affected by this problem.
Two visitors from Atlanta in the United States said they were disappointed when they arrived in the parish. "We were told by friends just how beautiful the south coast is. Normally we stay in Montego Bay, but this time we decided to do something different. It really is a pity what the fires have done to this place," said Kevin Scott, one of the visitors.
So, as The Gleaner team wrapped up its visit and ventured out of the parish, thick black smoke continued to rise from the hillsides and distraught residents continued to wait anxiously for their only foreseeable saviour rain.