A NARRATIVE OF FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN BY: NATUREZONE
As reported this morning, the fires on Mt. Kenya and in the Aberdare mountains are now finally out. It took an extraordinary effort by volunteers and those tasked to fight fires by the nature of their job to accomplish that.
Here is the serialized narrative taken from a blog by Naturezone of how this effort unfolded in front of her eyes and what dangers the fire fighting team was exposed to. I take my hat off to her, and everyone who rushed to offer aid and assistance, and honour them by reproducing the story:
There is Fire on the Mountain (part1)
Mount Kenya is a wonderful place to visit, very green, peaceful and it keeps you intrigued every second. The trees share so much life and show so much abundance, the air so pure and clear it makes you forget the hustle and bustle if you are from a city like Nairobi, and you want to be nowhere else but there.
Every chilly morning, the birds chirp away at the top of the trees as though to welcome the sun, and very elusive birds might I add. You always hear them, but don’t easily see them.The day warms up from about 9am, the best time to bask a little if you like. By the afternoon, it can get pretty warm but its always a good idea to have your jacket/sweater with you. The nights on the other hand come alive with a variety of very interesting sounds: the screams of Tree Hyrax which come out at night to announce their presence and their territory, and woven inbetween the shrill creaking of crickets and other insects or animals which definitely make you wonder and want to find out what they are! What better way to enjoy this than sitting by a camp fire and staring up at the clear night sky to observe the stars and hope to see a ‘shooting star’. It is a beautiful experience indeed.
However, it was not all this that brought me to Mount Kenya, it was the raging fires that were burning our forests on the mountain, and I was there along with 5 other individual volunteers that were brought together via a Facebook group Kenyans For Wildlife. We were there for a whole week and I will put down as best as I can here.
We came together as a team to help to fight the fires, or assist in any way possible. The Kenya Wildlife Service were doing all they possibly could to contain the situation. I was not fully aware of how bad the situation was at the time, but I knew it was bad! The British army were called in to help, the Mount Kenya trust team amongst many others. There were two Choppers as well: Lady Lori and Tropic Air.
After our briefing by the senior Warden at the main gate on Monday Afternoon- the day we arrived, we had a cup of tea and later, we were directed to the campsite where we would pitch camp for the night and await the morning for further instructions on where and how we could assist. At camp as we made our dinner, there we first met The Mount Kenya trust team and they seemed very nice and welcomed us with a few stories.
The next morning we were up bright and early after an interesting night, had our breakfast but ended up waiting for hours until we were able to get any information on where to go and what to do next. It was understandable as the situation was very hectic you can imagine.Infront of the offices, was a table with a Map of the Mount Kenya region with markings on the areas that were burning, and beside it printed papers each stating the region on fire, the importance/priority, the ease of access/terrain and the equipment required to put out the fires respectively.YES, it was not ONE big fire, but MANY all over the place. Chogoria was priority 1 meaning it was the worst- The fire was burning down forests that serve as a water catchement for the area.
We were later addressed and given a choice of what to do, as there were several areas that volunteers were needed. We decided that we wanted to go and assist in Chogoria, where the fires were the worst at the time. Our only option was to break camp and head out to Chogoria which was about 3hours away. It was at that time that we were teamed up with the Mount Kenya Trust(MKT) group and we followed them to the next campsite at Chogoria where we pitched camp that afternoon and then decided to drive up in their Landrover to just survey the area that was burnt.
The drive up was thrilling, more thrilling than one of those rides at an amusement park. The seats in the landrover were back to back on either side and you would sit facing outwards, so it was wise to hang on tight and have one foot up on the side to prevent you from falling out as the car tackled every inch of that uneven road! The thrill for me, was the feeling of almost falling out of the car knowing that I as somewhat secure enough. The sightseeing however was pleasant when you managed to get used to the bumpy ride and enjoy what seemed like an untouched beautiful forest, and what an amazing tree I saw, with its trunk growing sideways and flat like a plank of wood.
About an hour after driving, we were higher up and we could now see the Bamboo forest, and at that time, I knew we would be close, we could smell ashes after a while, and soon enough, we started seeing them. First it was visible only on the Left hand side, and then I saw it on my side too. We kept driving on, and we then came upon a clearing. The clearing was all burnt bamboo, ashes, lots and lots of ashes and a few trees that were still standing and also a scattered lots of bamboo barely upright. We asked the driver to stop so that we could take pictures. It was a harsh strike of reality. This vast land that not so long ago was a thick cover of bamboo, was burnt to ashes. We got out to have a look, I took some photos and I noticed the MKT guys had spotted something in the distance. It was thick white smoke that was somewhere on the hills. I took a few more snaps and then walked up the road. Stems of the bamboo had also fallen across the road, it was sad and heart-wrenching, it looked like what you see in the moves- a place after suffering a tragic war and later, its all silent, its all dead. At that point there was no sign of life anywhere around, no birds, no animals in sight. I could only imagine the troubles they faced with their home burning to the ground forcing them to abandon their nests and pathways, their only defence being to run away and save themselves from this terror caused by the hand of man. As I continued walking, I wondered if the people who started these fires knew what damage they had done and if they were the least bit remorseful. I then heard the Land Rover in the distance coming up towards me and it broke my deep chain of thought. I jumped in and we went on up to the Chogoria gate.
The rest of the drive up, we continued to look on observing some smouldering logs of which there would be not much point in attempting to put it out for there was nothing left to burn. However there were areas that we saw as we closed in to our destination- whereby the fire got through the bamboo thicket and burnt just the surface. You could tell by the black patches that stood out- these were all the leaves on the ground and the grasses that were burnt and then the forest was normal again after that and no signs of fire.
Just as we reached the Chogoria gate I felt welcomed by this wonderful Hagenia abyssinica (Rosewood) tree which stood on a small elevated piece of land.It was huge and just beautiful, it made me feel like that was a little piece of heaven with all the couloured leaves that littered the ground around it and the Spanish moss that hung from its branches. Upon arriving, we got out and looked around and one of the first things that we saw, were clouds of white smoke coming from over the ridges of the mountain. We were there briefly and headed back to camp before it got dark.
Fire on The Mountain (Part 2)
A view of the burnt forest and the remnants
The next morning, everyone was up by 6am and getting prepared for the day ahead. Before we left, we were given a briefing along with the administrative Police team from Meru and Embu, who had joined us at camp the night before. We all stood in a circle, held hands and we prayed together. That day, we knew that our mission to put out the fires was on.
Still not sure what to expect, we all packed bottles of drinking water, ready with our boots and caps on, packed all the tools that we would need to put out the fires and headed up to the Chogoria gate in the Mount KenyaTrust Landrover with the team. We were still getting to know each other, but we all knew that we had a common interest, and that was to save the burning forests and the wildlife. When we got up to the gate, we noticed the smoke we had seen the day before was not any better, the fire seemed to have spread higher up the mountain. That however, was not our target for the day. The warden instructed us to go into the bamboo forest where smoke was seen when an aerial survey was done. Our job was to track down the fires or any smouldering pieces of wood that would cause a possible re-ignition of fire, and completely extinguish them. We got back into the Land Rover which would drop us off at a suitable point from which we would start walking.
We were dropped off where the bamboo forest was burnt all along the road. Dust masks were handed out to everyone in our team, as we had heard that some people were suffering from severe respiration problems from inhaling the smoke. Everyone picked up a tool: there were fire beaters which were basically a thick rubber flap attached to the end of a pole, pangas and jembes and we were off. We walked down a dusty road led by the MKT and we also had a brilliant tracker from the Kenya Army. We walked continuously on into the dead-land that was all completely burnt, ashes rising from every footstep, fallen trees and burnt bamboo stems still standing. We climbed up a hill that was a bit steep and as we got up to more flatter ground, it seemed to get more tricky to pass over and under and in between the stems of the fallen bamboo shoots. It was wise to follow in the same footsteps of those who were ahead as some places, the surface would be deceiving and if you took a wrong step, your foot would sink in a little bit more than you would have predicted. Sometimes it was difficult to get the fire beaters through such places, but we confidently and strongly went on. Along the way, we came across a fallen tree, still smouldering. It was put off and we went on.
After several slight ascents and descents, we were now coming to the part of the bamboo forest which had survived the burning or rather, the fires died out. It was much cooler in the thicket and we were all relieved from the sun. We soon came across an area where all the ground cover seemed to be burnt. It didn’t seem as bad as out where we came from. There was another fallen tree still burning a little and the team went ahead and put it out.
A fallen tree still smouldering
We didn’t find it to be much of a difficult task and it was a job well done by the team. As little a task as it seemed, it was a big help as it prevented any more fires starting up from that log. Our walk continued in the search for more signals of fire. Sure enough, we came across one. We saw lots of smoke and one of the MKT guys went ahead with a panga and started chopping away to clear the way to get to where the smoke was coming from. It wasn’t too far as I was following right behind him. At the time I did not have any tools in my hand. The rest of the team was behind and from where I was, I could see the fire at the bottom in between all the bamboo. Another of the team members came and passed in front of me! I could hear the one in front urgently yelling out for the fire beaters to be passed to him and for people with the fire beaters to go there! It was a tight spot I was in to turn around and go back, so I yelled out to them to pass the fire-beaters down. They were quickly passed through the entangled plants and I quickly passed them on through to the scout in front of me. I yelled out again to the team behind me who seemed to have some difficulty in getting to where I was and I told them that help was needed, and they were also trying to put out another fire which was burning from a log.
I could see the red flames at the base of the bamboo shoots, the scout was trying his best to get the fire beater in-between and put the fire out, but with not much luck. I was trying to go in further, but there were too many plants entangled and so I turned back around to see one of the other volunteers behind me, my words to him at that moment were ‘this is scary! really scary!’ No sooner had I said that, than I saw smoke rising beside me and the next thing we just hear this HUUUGGGEEE Gust of wind blowing and then followed by yelling, ‘GET OUT OF THERE!!’ ‘RUN’! RUN!’
My heart was racing! I knew that I had to get out of there, because I could now hear the fire loudly CRACKLING and the bamboo shoots EXPLODING! The wind had blown the fires towards us and it had raised the flames! There was more yelling ‘KIMBIENII!! I was trying to get through but I was caught in the tangled vines, but somehow I managed to get out! One of the other volunteers ahead of me, was struggling as well to get out and she stumbled and fell. The smoke was getting more, I stepped on a loose rock and slipped, but eventually, we all managed to get out and to a safe distance away from the fire.
We were all shaken and I was not even sure what happened to the other scouts who were in front of me, but a few minutes later we saw them jumping out of the thicket and into the more open place where we assembled for a short moment and a safe distance away. At that time, my heart was still racing and I couldn’t believe or even imagine what the fire was like behind me when I had turned around. Barely 5 minutes later, the team went back in to put the fire out before it got any worse. The air in the distance was filled with smoke. I started thinking all kinds of things while my other fellow volunteers were immediately talking about what each saw and heard. I was telling them how I was just there!! and how I could see those flames burning away!
The fire that almost engulfed us as the wind blew it towards us.
Myself and four other volunteers remained behind in the clearer area while the rest were out fighting the fires and we were worried for them. We calmed down a bit and we just hoped that they were all okay. As much as we felt helpless in that situation, we then understood how serious
this was, how bad these fires were and how in a split second with just one gust of wind it could spread so fast, and just as the term depicts ‘like quick fire’ that’s just what it was. We had high respect for the team members and all those who were working on the ground and putting their lives at risk to put out the fires. They were all brave in their endeavours to contain the fires and I told my fellow volunteers that I really salute them and that they were doing a fantastic job indeed. We went on talking about the short-lived experience as we waited in anxiety for the team to return.
A few of them finally returned and their eyes were red and teary from the smoke and we greeted them with sighs of relief. They also looked very worn out. They told us that they managed to contain the fire and successfully extinguish it. We went back to the place that we were before, (where we had to make a run for it )to see the other three members still trying to kill the smoulder from the log that the volunteers were trying to put out earlier. It was also a chance to analyse the area and look at the damage done ,as well as recall our positions and figure out how we managed to get out of there in the time that we did! It felt like we escaped death by a whisker, but we did have a laugh about it in the end, describing the yells we could hear and how one saw the other running and another on all fours trying to crawl out. We let them rest for a few minutes to have some water and regain some energy and we all shared a pack of Army biscuits. After a small speech to praise the team for their great work we did a team salute with the tools and we continued on with our hunt for some more fires.
I think by this time most of us were hoping that there would be no more fires and we could head back to camp, but that was not the case. After another half hour or so of trekking we could smell smoke and we were on a steep hill and at the bottom of that hill, smoke was visible. The MKT team quickly rushed down and told the rest of us to stay behind. We knew we were probably better off waiting for them as we didn’t all have tools. Some nerve-wrecking minutes later, one of the volunteers shouted out to the team which were down to find out if they were okay and they responded and told us to keep going ahead and that we would meet up with them. Thankfully, it wasn’t as bad as the other fire, and once again, they managed to put it out!
We were now all relieved and it was about that time to head back for camp, which seemed like a treacherous unending series of hills and the most difficult patches of grass that I have ever had to walk through in my life, so much so, that I even fell to my knees after tripping on one of the clustered roots of the grass. We came to one hill where the our brilliant tracker showed us the camp on top of another hill ‘Ni hapo tu!’ It was the last major climb and we all pushed ourselves to climb that steep elevated piece of land!!
FINALLY!! We made it to the top! our legs wobbling like jelly, but we dragged on to the campsite where we were welcomed back by the warden and we took the first seat we could get-on the grass! That was when we received the best and most rewarding meal of the day: the Broadway mkate and KCC Maziwa!! Nothing had ever tasted so good after such a day!
That was the end of the day, and the end of this post, I will have to write another post for part three briefly -about the last day of the experience! Thanks again for reading! I do appreciate some feedback!