St Elizabeth farmers insist it is...

South Central Bureau

Sunday, August 25, 2019

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FLAGAMAN, St Elizabeth — Melon and onion farmer Martin Parchment struggled to describe his horror as the fire rushed towards him from the east.

“When I see the fire first it look far but then the breeze tek it an' it shoot like a rocket,” said Parchment, waving his arms about for emphasis.

The extraordinary speed of the fire, which destroyed in excess of 200 acres of crops and grass at lower Flagaman in the Pedro Plains area on Friday, August 16, was a constant theme as residents spoke to the Jamaica Observer during a visit last week.

Parchment's neighbour, John Davis, who lost six acres of “prepared land, grass and crops”, including cantaloupe and honeydew melons, said that as the fire “fly” across the drought-parched plain, most damage was done in just two hours.

For those visiting after the fire, the biggest mystery was how it was kept away from the several houses in the immediate vicinity, as well as the Pedro Plains Primary School.

Locals explained that while fire trucks from the St Elizabeth Fire Department were on hand their water quickly ran out. It was local water truck operators and farmers who saved the day, they said.

“The truck driver dem a hero,” said Parchment, who described how the truckers ferried loads of water from neighbouring Beacon and rushed “up and down” distributing water so that farmers could hold off the blaze using hoses.

Councillor for the Pedro Plains Division Jeremy Palmer (JLP) said more than 100 people were adversely affected by the fire.

The Government through its information arm, the Jamaica Information Service (JIS), said 47 farmers suffered damage estimated at $45 million. However, the Jamaica Agricultural Society, which represents the interest of farmers islandwide, estimated the damage at over $300 million.

The Government has said it is moving to provide relief.

The fire destroyed crops of melon, scallion, onion — mostly waiting to be reaped — as well as large swathes of grass. The latter is valued beyond measure by south St Elizabeth farmers because of its utility in keeping the soil moist and mulched in the absence of rain.

Crucially, much of the damage was counted in irrigation equipment, including drip hoses and large drums (plastic and metal) used to store trucked water in the fields.

Irrigation methods — including by hand with farmers pouring small quantities of water at the root of individual plants — is essential for farmers in southern St Elizabeth, which is routinely among the driest areas in Jamaica.

Apart from “a couple” showers in late May, people in most communities of southern St Elizabeth say there has been little or no rain since the start of 2019, only the odd “sprinkling”. Strong winds have made the situation worse.

Palmer, who was born and raised in the Queensbury area of Southfield, is describing the drought as “the worst in my lifetime”.

There seems to be uncertainty as to how the Flagaman blaze actually started, though locals told the Sunday Observer of persistent “rumours” that an individual to the east may have been using fire to clear land.

That, they said, is not a common practice in the Flagaman/Pedro Plains area because farmers know of the danger of fire, especially in dry, windy conditions.

What seems to be beyond doubt is that the fire first started shortly after daylight at about 5:30 am. Firefighters put out the initial blaze. But according to locals, a 'duck' ants nest was left burning in a mango tree.

They claim that as powerful winds from the east built up in the afternoon, sparks from the burning tree ignited the surrounding landscape and the fire swept westwards.

“In my 50 years, I never see anything like it,” Parchment, who claimed he had suffered fire damage previously, told the Sunday Observer.

Davis said he had only heard of one fire in the Pedro Plains area that may have been worse.

“My father told me that in 1959, fire spread right through here all the way to (neighbouring) Newcombe Valley” further west, Davis said.

His wife, Ann Marie, who recently did surgery on her throat said she “cried” as the fire approached. She said she ended up “knocked out” by the smoke which covered the “whole place”.

Davis said he had to abandon efforts to save farm materials, including drip hoses when the fire skipped across the road and threatened his house.

He had to speedily cut down a tall coconut tree beside his home when he saw the very top of the tree burning. “Otherwise it would have taken the roof of the house,” Davis explained.

Locals kept the fire away from buildings by “wetting” the immediate vicinity and “beating” the fire away with whatever they could lay their hands on.

A small structure, said to be operated by the Meteorological Service of Jamaica Office as a weather monitoring station, was consumed by the blaze.

Residents insisted that nothing would have been saved had it not been for the truck operators who kept coming with water. “Dem deserve medal,” said Parchment.

Palmer described the community's fire-fighting effort as “monumental”.

When the Sunday Observer visited, locals said it would take months for replanting. They would have to wait for rain and for crop-supporting grass to grow again, they said.

Burnt mango and cashew trees, plastic drums weirdly twisted by the fire, and the remains of melon crops, dotted the scorched landscape.

There was also the immediate danger of broken utility poles and wires hanging low in the aftermath of the disaster.

Residents had a cautionary word for Government officials, including from Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) to carefully do their due diligence checks before making handouts such as seeds and fertiliser because of the risk of “frauds” falsely claiming damage.

Palmer has also warned about the “opportunity” for unscrupulous people to declare losses when they had “lost nothing at all”.

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