The heroes of this season are undoubtedly the people who have bravely battled the flames that have plagued the Tsavo ecosystem. Working with the KWS and other field partners, our teams have responded to the call of duty, responding to more than 35 bushfires in the past five months.
Fires can be a natural phenomenon, but discouragingly, almost all of these fires appear to have been set with ill-intent. Ample rains over the past two and a half years left Tsavo blanketed with vegetation which, during the dry season, transforms into dangerously efficient kindling. Couple this with blustery winds, and arsonists need only light the match to wipe out swathes of wilderness. Huge areas have been burnt to a cinder, destroying with it all small creatures who were unable to outrun the flames. Even those who were able to escape will struggle with the habitat loss, making survival during the dry season even more difficult than usual
Every fire presents its challenges, but the recent battle for the Tsavo East Triangle stands out. The fire was first reported by a KWS corporal, who saw a suspicious plume of smoke near the Tsavo River Junction as he traveled the Mombasa highway. KWS immediately called upon our pilots to investigate and, unfortunately, our worst fears were confirmed. Ground and aerial teams mobilized, but the fire was in a remote area of the park, and it took time to get boots on the ground. As the afternoon wore on, the winds picked up and the fire grew exponentially. Soon, the late hour prevented aerial cover, and the ground teams were left to fight as best they could.
During the rainy season, a network of rivers run through the Tsavo Triangle fringed by doum palm trees to the Athi river. This factor provided an additional challenge as the fire raged through the highly flammable dry palm fronds. On top of this, doum nuts explode when they are heated, sending burning projectiles off into the wind. As a result, we were seeing the flames jump as much as a kilometer ahead of the fire front we were fighting. The northern front was of particular concern, as it was headed in the direction of community lands, burning property, small farms, and leaving human lives vulnerable. It was imperative that all our resources were put in place to prevent this from happening.
We regrouped with the KWS at dawn the next morning, taking stock of the formidable challenge ahead of us. The fire was travelling through thick vegetation at an alarming rate, making accessibility almost impossible. Our fleet of aircraft — three fixed-wing planes and two helicopters — took flight. We chartered the second helicopter and Bambi bucket for water drops from Tropic Air, knowing it was imperative to reach the remote fronts that the ground teams could not access, and help extinguish any smouldering logs that could easily ignite again once the winds picked up.
All in all, the fire took five days to finally extinguish. Our helicopter logged 26 hours in the air, making 221 individual water drops with the Bambi bucket. The Tropic Air helicopter logged an additional 12 hours, with 79 water drops. All the while, our fixed-wing pilots circled above, providing vital intel and alerting the ground teams where to concentrate their efforts according to the changing direction of the fire. These pilots flew a total of 49 hours, covering 6,311 kilometers in the area. Circling above searing heat, avoiding escaping birds and handling fast fluctuating winds in poor visibility requires incredible concentration and patience. Our three pilots, working alongside their counterparts from the Tsavo Trust and KWS, provided invaluable support to the firefighting efforts.
On the ground, meanwhile, we mobilized our grader to widen the roads to allow for more effective backburning. We also brought four of our water bowsers to the scene, dousing the flames and smouldering vegetation. 54 of our own team worked in the field, alongside KWS, two teams from Tsavo Trust, Team Tsavo, and two teams from Wildlife Works. The owner and manager of Teita Sisal Estate came to the frontlines, along with 34 men, and their herculean efforts were critical in taming the western front of the fire.
It is difficult to put into words the experience of fighting a bushfire of this magnitude. The ground teams fought the flames all day and then deep into the night, taking advantage of the abatement of the winds. Fighting a fire through dense woodlands, where vehicles cannot pass, added to the complications. Walking through the bush on foot, grappling with equipment and soaring temperatures, is both draining and dangerous. Not only were there flames to contend with, but also terrified wildlife fleeing the blaze.
There were a number of times when we felt that the fire was finally under control, only for it to flare up again in a new place. It was not extinguished until day five, but by that time, it had destroyed more than 10,712 acres of National park. The rains for Tsavo cannot come soon enough, but thankfully all signs indicate that they are imminent: The acacias are flowering, ostrich chicks are hatching, and flame lilies are in bloom. As we wait for nature to grace us with open skies, we continue to salute the brave men who work so tirelessly to protect this special habitat and all who call it home.