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Burning up water with bush fires

By ANNE HILTON Thursday, April 15 2010

click on pic to zoom in
A bush fire burning near homes in the hills of Cascade....
A bush fire burning near homes in the hills of Cascade....

BUSH FIRES don’t light themselves in Trinidad and Tobago. That is a fact proved over and over again by the Forestry Division, Field Naturalists and anyone else who has tried to start a fire by smashing a bottle and letting the sun do the rest. Many years ago the Field Naturalists offered TT$1,000 to anyone who could produce the mythical 'Fire Stones’ that, so legend said, started a fire by rolling down a hill. That offer still stands, is still unclaimed.

Lightning has been known to start bush fires in the southwest United States and certain parts of Australia — but not here where lightning is accompanied by drenching rains that quickly quench the sparks set by lightning. In countries where there are chalk hills, wild animals have been thought to dig up, to dislodge flints in the chalk, that shower sparks every time they bounce on a stone.

However, there are no chalk hills in TT, the only flints to be found here are in cigarette lighters. It is those flints that set fire to garden rubbish or camp fires, to the bush squatting (and other) gardeners burn to clear land for gardens — or marijuana plantations high in the Northern Range. Flints in cigarette lighters (electronic or otherwise) matches, cigarette butts - these are the only things responsible for the bush fires that have been destroying this country in the past three months and, God help us, until He sends rain.

As in the past, even more so today, bush fires past, present and (God save us) to come will affect more, much more than the smoke from this year’s record fires are affecting our lungs, our throats, our eyes.

Apart from those who live in remote, country districts where there have been no bush fires, wherever you live in this country, whether you suffer from bush fires threatening your home or you watch from far off the flames by night, the smoke by day, you will suffer from those bush fires.

Why? Because those flames are ripping away the cover protecting the soil from sun and rain. Think of the bush as a sponge (which it is) soaking up the rain and letting it seep down into the earth trickle around rock to join underground rivulets feeding WASA’s aquifers (natural underground reservoirs). Take away that sponge and nothing can check the heavy rains sweeping down the hills, carrying away soil to the Gulf of Paria, flooding farms and factories, stores and schools, damaging roads and bridges, ruining homes and business places.

That is the price we’ll all have to pay for those who set the fires that have raged, are still burning high on the hills of the Northern Range from Chaguaramas to Valencia — and the bush fires in the Southland, too, in this year of drought 2010.

Prices of vegetables, fruit, chickens and eggs will rise even more when floods sweep away the new planting after the drought breaks and poultry pens in the foothills are washed away.

Experience has taught us over the past decade that once the land is stripped of its protective covering of bush, of the tall trees that absorb the shocks of the rain, come the wet season roads will be washed out, bridges washed away, schools and businesses flooded due to (among other garbage) soft drink bottles, fast food containers, old fridges, mattresses, TVs and the trunk of fallen, burned forest giants dam the water courses — and, in the midst of apparent plenty when the rains (God willing) fall on the thirsty earth, there is little or no water in our taps.

Why won’t there be water and to spare? Because instead of soaking into the ground and filling the aquifers as it did when there was tree cover, the rains run off over the hard, baked ground, gouging out mini ravines en route eroding the hillsides, carrying soil down to the Gulf of Paria.

That is the price we’re all going to pay for allowing those who hate this country set bush fires to rage unchecked in the dry season, 2010.

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