It does rain in Namibia, even sometimes in the desert. But like any semi-tropical country, only in the rainy season. That season ended about four months ago and is still about three away. Conclusion: it is currently very dry here. Result: fires start in a careless instant.
For the past couple of months, voices have been crying out over the CB in the kitchen; fire. Fire here, come help. Fire there, they need more hands. Sometimes the smoke towers could be seen in the distance. But it was always that, in the distance. Until last week.
Monday we saw the smoke billowing out of the neighbor’s farm to the north. We called them up, asked what happened. Their neighbor on the other side had workers camping in the bush one night and their fire ran away. Without telling anyone, they let it spread and so it arrived without warning on our neighbor’s doorstep. We asked if we could help. No, they had it under control. Until Wednesday.
That morning we looked outside and the fire had climbed over the hill between us and appeared awfully close to our fence line. Another fire was already deep into our fields but far from anything it could damage. Seems something had escaped control.
Another phone call. They needed help this time. The fire was approaching their camp with cattle and what was left of the grass they had to graze. They needed a firebreak. Quickly. We headed over and met another crew ready to go. We could see the smoke above the trees. The fire was not far away.
What was fortunate was the camp with the fire was separated from the camp with the cows by the main road. So all we had to do was burn the grass remaining between the road and the fire to take away its fuel. And not let it jump the road. We had a pick-up truck with an enormous tank of water and a power sprayer on the back in case it did. They call these contraptions firefighters, sensibly. Then we set a chunk of dead grass alight and dragged it along with a rake. It was my first time actually starting a wildfire.
It spread quickly and we kept moving forward. We had a long way to go before the border to our farm.
As we worked, more people staff from the farm showed up with more firefighters. They started the firebreak heading in the opposite direction. The owners of the farm, drove through from time to time to check on things. The husband, calm as a bug in a rug. The wife, frantic as the flames. Just to make her feel better, her tire popped in the middle of it all. I had to continually return to our truck and move it away from the growing flames and snap photos in between. Sniffel seemed absolutely oblivious to what was going on.
I walked along with some other fellas, setting fires with matches, or in their case, cigarettes, to speed up the process. When our fire reached back into the bigger trees the flames grew to sizes I’ve never seen in my life. They created thick, black smoke, blocking the sun, and made mid-morning feel like late afternoon.
The other half of the crew finished their side and met us at the border to our farm. The fire did, too.
We closed what we could with a firebreak but some of it would just have to burn. We went for a flight later in the evening to see where the fire might be heading, and the damage left in its wake. It told us tomorrow would be a long day.
The fire found the neighbors’ house. They were able to stop it without loss.
I came to call these “tree ghosts”. Like a stick of incense, they fell in perfect form as they burned. We would see many of them.