Ethiopia: Raging fires wiping out wildlife, property

NAIROBI, 8 March (IRIN) - Forest fires raging out of control in Ethiopia's southeast Oromiya state have destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of land, and urgent appeal has been issued for international aid.
The fires, which broke out over three weeks ago in the Shakiso district of the state's Borena zone of Oromiya state, are believed to have escalated out of control after local farmers started burning land for cultivation.

Government officials described the situation as "critical". The head of the natural resources department in the agriculture ministry, Tamiru Habte, told IRIN the international response to the government's appeal for assistance had been "insignificant".

A total of six experts, three from South Africa, two from Germany and one from the US, on Sunday travelled to the Borena and Bale zones to assess the damage and study ways of extinguishing the fires. A further 22 experts were expected in the country by Wednesday, Tamiru said.

Some 70,000 hectares of natural forest have been razed, hundreds of wild animals and birds in the Borena and Bale regions have died, and bee hives, electricity poles and residential houses have been destroyed. Conservationists are particularly alarmed as the fires are closing in on the Bale Mountains national park, home to many rare animal and plant species. According to Tamiru, some 100,000 people in Borena and Bale have been mobilised and "are working tirelessly every day" in a bid to extinguish the fires.

"It has been extremely difficult," he said. The main problem was not manpower, but lack of equipment. "We are in dire need of helicopters, pumps, fire extinguishers, hand tools to fight the fire on the ground, more experts, more fire fighters." He warned that because of the wind and dry weather, the fires risked spreading further.

A statement by the team of six experts on Monday also appealed for more equipment to fight the raging fires. It said aerial impressions collected during survey flights between 3-5 March confirmed that ten of thousands of hectares of natural mountain forest have been affected by fire.

There was currently no reliable monitoring system in place, and current demographic and socio-economic conditions had led to an "unprecedented pressure on the remaining mountain forest ecosystems". The extended drought in the region had further aggravated the situation and an "immediate response" was required, the statement stressed.

The fires were burning in extremely inaccessible and very steep terrain and could not be reached by ground transport, it pointed out. One option was to deploy specialised fire fighter crews by helicopter. "The mobilisation of national and international efforts in fighting the current fires is an important step towards a clear commitment to save the endangered forest resources of the country," the statement said.

The Nairobi-based UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), for its part, said it had not received an official request for assistance from the Ethiopian government. "We have heard about the fires," an official from the agency told IRIN. "In fact we are trying to get a map of the affected area and follow up the incident. But our response is always given on request by the affected government."


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