Satellite Map Calls Attention To Central Africa’s Wildfires

Wildfires in Central Africa
Fires in African Forests (Credit: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings)

Wildfires are started by lightning or accidentally by people. People also use controlled fires to manage farmland, pasture and clear natural vegetation for farmland. Fires can lead to significant smoke pollution, release greenhouse gases, and unintentionally degrade ecosystems. But fires can also clear away dead and dying underbrush, which could ultimately help to restore an ecosystem to good health. In many ecosystems, including boreal forests and grasslands, plants have co-evolved with fire and require periodic burning to reproduce.

A continuous sequence of fires is raging in Central Africa and parts of Southern Africa. The Congo Basin forest, one of the regions at risk, is the second-largest tropical rain forest, after the Amazon forest. The forest is often referred to as “the world’s second lung”, because it has been instrumental in the fight against climate change by absorption of a large volume of carbon dioxide by trees and marshes.  

According to the Guardian Newspaper, the forests cover an area of 3.3 million square kilometres in several countries, a third of which is the location in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the rest cutting across Gabon, Congo, Cameroon and Central Africa. They also serve as a safe haven for endangered species.

The roaring flames are mostly restricted to the Savannah, but concerns are being raised due to their proximity to the forests of the Congo Basin, which proximity has been enabled by industrial activities in the region. Although the individual fires have not encroached the forests of the Congo Basin, they, however, pose a direct risk to the tropical forest, which is home to thousands of animal and plant species. 

The MODIS images documented more than 6,902 fires in Angola and 3,395 fires in the DR Congo while picking up on just over 2,000 in Brazil.

Some experts fear that if the fires get wild, the governments of countries that make up the Central African sub-region are neither financially nor technically prepared to combat the fire. 

Data analysed by Global Forest Watch show that Angola ranks first in the number of fire alerts by province right now, while Brazil ranks second, with Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in third and fourth place respectively. 

A NASA satellite map shows Central Africa as a thick fiery splotch, denser than the red mass over the Amazon. The fires in Central Africa appear to burn like a red chain from Gabon to Angola, similar to the blazes in Brazil’s Amazon forest that have sparked global outcry. But experts cautioned that each dot represents a distinct fire in a large geographic region, not one huge conflagration.

Wildfires in Central Africa 1
A NASA satellite map showing Central Africa as a thick fiery splotch (Credit: NASA)

Ms. Williams, of Global Forest Watch, also cautioned that satellite technology is not perfect, and that satellites sometimes identify fires that are not actually there. But most of the fires shown on the NASA maps of Africa are outside sensitive rain forest areas, analysts say, and drawing comparisons to the Amazon is also complex.

In times past, the fires set by farmers were not a major cause of worry, because they seemed to have worked so far, but recently, due to the rise in temperature, decreased rainfall and increased deforestation, the forests are now susceptible to fires that may spin out of control eventually. Many farmers use slash-and-burn farming to clear forests. 

According to some sources, only nine percent of the population has access to electricity and many people use wood for cooking and energy. The President of DR Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, said that the country needs to improve its hydro-electric capacity, because the constant logging will threaten the rain forests if not minimized drastically. 

While at the G7 summit this week, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, tweeted about the fires raging and threatening Central Africa, and said that efforts will be made to examine a similar initiative to the one intended to combat the Amazon fires.

According to Angola’ Ministry of Environment, the fires are not unusual, they are seasonal and linked to traditional seasonal farming methods as they usually occur at this time of the year, and are caused by farmers all over the country, in preparation for the rainy season.

Experts have emphasised the need to protect forests that are still principally intact by stopping activities that constantly threaten their biodiversity because, they will serve as crucial support for future climate change. 



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