Waterloo Region Record

Africa is ‘fire continent’ but Amazon blazes differ


DAKAR, SENEGAL — As the world has watched with fear and fascinatio­n the fires burning in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, satellite images show a far greater number of blazes on the African continent.

NASA has called Africa the “fire continent” that’s home to at least 70 per cent of the 10,000 fires burning worldwide on an average August day, though the agency says the number of fires is consistent from year to year.

While French President Emmanuel Macron has said he is considerin­g launching an internatio­nal campaign to help sub-Saharan African countries fight fires, experts say the situation there is different and not yet a growing problem — though it could become a threat in future.

Angola had almost three times more fires than Brazil over a period last week, according to NASA satellite imagery, which indicated around 6,000 fires in Angola, more than 3,000 in Congo and just over 2,000 in Brazil.

Though Angola and Congo dominate in numbers of fires, they often occur in sparsely wooded savannahs and on fields cultivated by small farmers, making them less of a concern for deforestat­ion than those in the Amazon, said Sally Archibald, a professor at Wits University in Johannesbu­rg.

“There are fire management questions in these (African) ecosystems, but fire is part of their ecology,” said Archibald, who studies fire management and savannah dynamics. “In South America, the equivalent nonforest woodlands have been largely converted to soybean agricultur­e already, but in Africa they are largely untransfor­med.”

Savanna fires release carbon dioxide, but within a year the grass regrows, sucking much of the carbon out of the atmosphere again. The fires may push toward the forests but are mostly snuffed out at that border, Archibald said, unless trees are cut down, making tropical forests more vulnerable.

When a tropical forest is burned, the trees die and the carbon dioxide goes up and doesn’t return to the system quickly.

“The main message is: yes we have a lot of fire, but it’s not bad and can be very good for the ecology,” she said.

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