Resource 3: Bush burning

Teacher resource for planning or adapting to use with pupils

‘As far as the bushfires continue, the grasshoppers cannot congratulate each other’

A popular Dagomba saying (Dagomba is one of the largest tribal groups in the Northern Region in Ghana.)

Reasons for bush burning

Throughout Ghana, bushfires have meant death and suffering for people and animals and have adversely affected the environment. There are several factors which cause bushfires and villagers have good reasons for using fire. However, some of these fires – if not properly controlled – end up causing serious damage.

Fire is widely accepted throughout the country as being a valuable tool in the management of natural vegetation, agriculture including livestock production and in other land-use systems. In the past and even today, hunters, herders, farmers and cigarette smokers are most often blamed for uncontrolled and indiscriminate bush burning. Many bushfires in the forest zone are deliberately started during the dry season. In many areas, farmers and hunters do so to allow access for people and animals. Many farmers use fire to reduce the fuel load or combustible litter in order to reduce the potential frequency and intensity of late dry-season fires.

Managing bushfire

Bushfires can be managed by professional staff, such as rangers and park workers, with help from volunteers from rural areas. However, large fires are often of such a size that no firefighting service could attempt to douse the whole fire directly, and so alternative techniques are used.

Typically, this involves controlling the area that the fire can spread to, clearing control lines, which are areas that contain no combustible material. These control lines can be produced by bulldozing, or by backburning – setting a small, low-intensity fire to burn the flammable material in a controlled way. These may then be extinguished by firefighters, or, ideally, directed in such a way that they meet the main fire front, at which point both fires will run out of flammable material and be extinguished.

Unfortunately, such methods can fail in the face of wind shifts, causing fires to miss control lines, or because fires jump straight over them (for instance, because a burning tree falls across a line, or burning embers are carried by the wind over the line).

The risk of major bushfires can be reduced by reducing the amount of fuel present. In forests, this is usually accomplished by conducting controlled burns – deliberately setting areas ablaze during favourable weather conditions in spring or autumn.

Controlled burns can be controversial, both because they can be regarded as tampering with the forest ecosystem, and because serious fires can be started if a control burn gets out of hand.

Contrary to urban understanding of bushfire, rural farming communities are comparatively rarely threatened directly by them. They are usually located in the middle of large areas of cleared, usually grazed, land, and in the drought conditions present in bushfire years, there is often very little grass left.

However, urban fringes often spread into forested areas, and communities have literally built themselves in the middle of highly flammable forests.

On occasions, bushfires have caused widescale damage to private property, particularly when they have reached such urban-fringe communities, destroying many homes and causing deaths.

Adapted from: [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Accessed 2008)

Resource 2: How to debate an issue

Resource 4: Different environments