NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 24 – Ten suspects have been arrested in connection with the ongoing forest fires that have destroyed indigenous forests in the country.,
Forestry and Wildlife Minister Noah Wekesa said on Tuesday that the suspects would be charged in court over the offence likely to attract a penalty of Sh50,000 or one year jail term. Dr Wekesa accused residents encroaching forests of starting the fires in anticipation of establishing settlements.
“Evidence collected from some of the fire scenes indicated that they were started right in the middle of forests,” he said maintaining that they were convinced that the infernos were as a result of arson.
The worst hit areas are those within the Mau complex including; Koibatek, Nakuru, Nyandarua, and Kericho. Others are Makueni, Trans Nzoia, Chuka, Meru, Nyeri and Kiambu districts. The indigenous forests have taken decades to grow. Some 4,651 hectares of forest cover has been destroyed in the fires whose damage is estimated at over Sh65 million.
Dr Wekesa regretted that the continuing encroachment of forests was being encouraged by certain politicians.
“The settlements have gone into the forest. You will find homes in the middle of the forests. As much as we have the task force working there, the information we have got is that politicians are encouraging people to continue living there,” said the Minister.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga has been in the forefront in advocating for the eviction of those who settled in the Mau forest but has faced stiff opposition from politicians from North Rift. A task force appointed to develop a strategy on the eviction is expected to hand in its report to the Premier next week, but according to the Minister there was no consensus among the team.
“My officers in the team have informed me that some people from that region have refused to sign the report. But let me assure you that the government is committed to safeguarding the livelihood of future generations,” he said.
The Minister said that a combined force of 3,500 personnel from the Kenya Army, Kenya Forest Services, National Youth Service, Administration Police, the Provincial Administration, and members of the Community Forests Associations are being used to assist in putting out the fires. The government has also mobilised three aircrafts including one helicopter to direct the officers battling the flames from the air.
Dr Wekesa however admitted that they lacked adequate ‘sophisticated’ facilities to effectively fight the blazes.
“It has however been realised that some areas are rough with deep valleys and it is difficult to access them without sophisticated equipment,” he admitted.
He nevertheless said that they had urged local authorities to assist with their fire-fighting facilities. The Minister spoke before undertaking an extensive tour of the affected areas to assess the situation.
The country is experiencing a period of dry spell occasioned by the failure of the short rains last October making the forests highly inflammable.
Meanwhile, more than ten acres of vegetation was reduced to ashes on Tuesday after a massive fire engulfed a section of the Karura Forest.
Swift response to the blaze by Kenya Forest Service staff and Fire-fighters from the Nairobi City fire brigade and Securex Security Company, helped put out the inferno that started shortly before midday.
Head of the Nairobi Forest Conservancy Charity Munyasia told Capital News that the fire was reported some minutes to noon after a live electrical wire snapped and landed on the dry grassland, igniting the fire.
“We got the news at around noon,” she said. “There is an electric wire that passes through Karura Forest. It got cut and fell so the livewire started off the fire which we have been putting out.”
The blaze was reportedly extinguished at about 2.30pm.
Karura Forest is situated off Nairobi-Kiambu Road about five kilometres from the City Centre.
Mrs Munyasia said by staff from the neighbouring Kenya Science Teachers College, International Centre for Research in Agro-Forestry (ICRAF) and Shell and BP Club assisted in putting out the blaze.
She revealed that the fire affected the side of the forest bordering Limuru Road and burned about 10 acres before it was brought under control.
“For now we have ten acres that have burned and we hope that the fire won’t spread any further,” she stated. No injuries or casualties were reported.
There was however a scare after strong winds looked as if they were fanning the flames to other parts of the forest, but fire-fighters managed to contain it.