The burning hills and the Kingston chain saw massacre

The hills have been burning steadily since the New Year began. The rain has gone left us.

Fires in the usually green, forested hills around our capital city, where the beautiful homes of the better off Kingstonians nestle, have now become commonplace. Tonight, it is a place called Peter’s Rock (and other places) that is ablaze. Tomorrow, who knows where it will be. Homes are increasingly threatened. There are communities in these “cool hills” with wonderful views of the city. Down here in the plain, we look up with alarm, and our senses are filled with smoke. Those living closer to the fires find soft black ashes falling on their gardens.

A piece of news this week. Bush fires are increasing.

Fires, and trees, have been a perpetual topic of conversation on my Twitter timeline for the past few days. It’s no wonder. For years, Professor Michael Taylor and his colleagues from the University of the West Indies Mona’s Climate Change Group have been predicting longer and longer droughts for the region. However, it all seems to come as a bit of a surprise to our government, for whom it is pretty much “business as usual.” Climate change is a great thing to make speeches about, but on the ground it can be explained away, or ignored. We don’t want it to get in the way of “development,” do we?

We continue to build highways, widen roads – and yes, the cutting down of trees in the city has reached almost epidemic proportions. Our Mayor is very upset about it and is talking to the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) about their habit of chopping madly at any tree within arm’s reach of an electric wire. I hope the talks will be “fruitful” as they say. Now, some of us on Twitter are starting a campaign to photograph important large trees (those that remain) in the city and their address, to remind people that they are there and may be threatened at any time. Meanwhile, the trees on our hillsides are threatened by fire.

All afternoon, Jamaica Defence Force helicopters with large orange buckets suspended underneath have been whirring back and forth, scooping up water from the Mona Reservoir and dropping it on fires that are otherwise impossible to reach. Kudos to them, and to the incredibly hard-working members of the Jamaica Fire Brigade, who deserve a huge raise in pay and better equipment.

One environmentalist put it well on Twitter this week: “Drought is the most insidious of disasters – slow, quiet, and so deadly.” It feels like a strange kind of autumn (and we don’t have autumn) as leaves fall steadily in our yard.

I cannot imagine what the farmers are going through; they must be at their wits’ end. Strangely, government ministers have not commented much. I am sure they all have water flowing in their pipes. Many communities, both urban and rural, do not.

Now, many Jamaicans seem to feel that fires start all by themselves; unless, that is, it’s a building that is on fire, in which case there is always the possibility of it being deliberately set. Truth be told, many fires are started by us humans, whether vengefully or not. Talking of buildings, four businesses in the small community of Fairy Hill, Portland, mysteriously burned down on the evening of the same day when a protest and road block took place against the dust and disruption caused by road works. There are many such “mysterious” fires, sadly – and many, like this one, may never be properly investigated.

And in fact, we are remarkably careless with fire. Quite apart from cigarette butts and matches being thrown away, which with our tinder-dry vegetation can start a fire in seconds – we actually do light fires, in our yards, on roadsides, and to clear fields. It caused some damage to a historic site not long ago, when someone set fire to a Jewish cemetery just to clean it up. This week, someone started a fire by the side of the road in our neighbourhood (a stone’s throw away from people’s houses, trees and power lines), in order to burn some discarded ackee pods, it appears. It was burning away, unattended, until a neighbour put it out. There is a habit of sweeping up some bits and pieces outside one’s house, and then setting fire to it. Why?

This is the case in many communities in and around Kingston. A friend of mine complained that every day, at around the same time, a fire starts up in the same spot in her suburban neighbourhood. She has asthma and it is very distressing for her, but she is afraid to go and confront the perpetrator.

A few years back, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) announced a new “No Open Burning” order for the period from February 1 to October 31, with an accompanying public education campaign. I haven’t heard much about it since; is it still in operation?

“Slash and burn” has consistently been the preferred way for farmers and others to clear land for their use. This can easily get out of hand too. If the slash/burner turns his back for half an hour or so, the damage is done.

What is also not well known is that open burning is actually illegal.

It is illegal, but are these laws enforced? Like many other environmental laws and regulations on our books, this is rare. We need a whole squad of environmental wardens, island-wide!

So, it all makes very little sense. We know that we are dealing with the impacts of climate change, right here and now. However, we carry on in blissful ignorance. The way we handle (or mishandle) fire is one cultural habit we need to get rid of. Meanwhile, the chain saw massacre of trees in Kingston continues unabated. Our city is going to be very hot, in many ways, this coming summer. And, say hello to increased air pollution!

This large tree has been “topped” to within an inch of its life, on Ardenne Road in Kingston. It is on the compound of a government agency, the National Land Agency. And it is nowhere near any power lines. Why? (Photo: Twitter @bujsha)

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