Start public education now to minimise fire disasters


Start public education now to minimise fire disasters

Monday, January 06, 2020

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Like people everywhere, horrified Jamaicans have been reading, watching, and listening to reports of the disastrous fires in distant Australia.

While the northern hemisphere is now experiencing the effects of winter — cooler temperatures for tropical countries like Jamaica and very cold weather for places to the far north — the southern hemisphere, including Australia, is at the height of a hot summer.

So hot, in fact, we are told that over recent days temperatures rose to a record 43 degrees Celsius in Australia's political capital, Canberra, and a record-high 48.9 degrees in the western suburbs of the populous coastal city, Sydney.

To make matters worse, prolonged drought has affected much of Australia — in some cases there has been no rain in a year.

Such dry, hot conditions present opportunities for wildfires, especially if there are strong winds. In such situations fires by spontaneous combustion — piles of very dry organic material including leaves, grass, sticks igniting naturally — as well as a result of lightning storms become a real danger.

And there is always the danger posed by humans who start fires inadvertently through negligence, carelessness, or deliberately.

It would seem that in Australia, since September, all of these factors have led to wildfires on an unprecedented scale, killing 23 people at last count, destroying more than 1,500 homes, and burning an estimated 12.35 million acres of land.

The Australian Government, under pressure for allegedly not paying enough attention to the effects of climate change, has called out 3,000 army reservists to assist professional firefighters and volunteers.

Australia isn't alone in terms of fire disasters. Reports out of California over the last two years suggest that the annual fire events are getting worse. And, in Europe, during the summer of 2019, fires caused considerable devastation.

Jamaicans can relate to all of that. In 2015, fires fuelled by an unusually prolonged drought and strong winds swept through Blue Mountain communities of east rural St Andrew and western St Thomas destroying homes as well as hundreds of acres of forest, coffee, and banana plantations, et al.

Just a few months ago, in 2019, fire again fuelled by drought and strong winds destroyed large forested acreages in St Mary, and more than 200 acres of farm crops on the plains of Flagaman/Pedro Plains in St Elizabeth.

The situation in Jamaica is worsened by a cultural acceptance of slash and burn as a way of clearing land for farming and, indeed, the burning of discarded material by citizens in their yards.

It's worthy of note that Jamaica is now well into the traditional dry season. As the rains disappear and temperatures gradually rise, experience teaches that bush fires will become more prevalent.

Last August, as computers bought with the assistance of external donors were turned over to the Jamaica Fire Brigade to strengthen a bush fire early warning system, Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie spoke of the need for public education campaigns to minimise fire disasters.

This newspaper believes there is no better time than now to start such a campaign.

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