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Wildfires rage around Africa's second highest peak

Nik Martin with AFP
March 2, 2019

Authorities have roped in teams of soldiers and volunteers to help tackle wildfires in the Mount Kenya national park. Illegal marijuana farming has been blamed for the blaze, which threatens natural bamboo forests.

Mount Kenya national park
Image: Getty Images/A. Renneisen

Wildlife rangers and Kenyan soldiers are battling to stem fierce wildfires on Mount Kenya national park, around 190 kilometers (118 miles) northeast of Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

More than 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres) of forest land has been destroyed at the World Heritage site since the fires broke out a week ago.

Kenya's Wildlife Service (KWS), the government agency responsible for national parks, said in a statement on Saturday that it had "made good progress" in containing the fires. However, it noted reports of fresh outbreaks.

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Other officials on the ground said the fires are still spreading at an alarming rate, and that firefighters faced challenges containing them due to high temperatures and changing wind direction.

Army called in

Kenya's Forest Service (KDS) said 490 troops had been deployed to the worst-affected areas. 

The Mount Kenya Trust charity said on Friday that hundreds of community members and volunteers backed up by an airplane dropping water had joined rangers and soldiers to beat out the fires.

Mount Kenya national park
Responders have struggled to contain the fires due to wind and dry conditions in the regionImage: Getty Images/A. Renneisen

In a tweet, the trust described how a crop duster plane had extinguished three fire lines on Saturday, while teams had been conveyed by helicopter to the site of two other fires on the upper moorlands.

The charity has raised $16,000 (€14,000) so far in a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the air support.

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Row over who's to blame

Some local media reports blamed the fire on farmers clearing the area to plant illegal marijuana. The Nation newspaper cited MP Kareke Mbiuki (Maara) as calling for strict measures to keep "criminals" out of the national park.

Other officials have blamed local honey gatherers and residents who burned grass to kill ticks.

The Nairobi-based Intergovernmental Authority on Development's Climate Predictions and Applications Centre tweeted a satellite video graphic of the wild fire's spread.

Flames still visible

Plumes of smoke continued to be seen rising from the park on Saturday with large flames still visible among the vegetation and natural bamboo forest. Above, Africa's second highest after Kilimanjaro in Tanzania remained covered in ice and snow patches.

The national park, with a 5,199-meter (17,057-foot) high peak at its center, straddles the equator and is a key habitat for wild animals. The mountain is the main catchment area for the country's two main rivers.

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British adventurer Charlie Mayhew, who runs the elephant conservation charity Tusk, tweeted that his organization had already sent $10,000 in emergency funds to prevent the fire's spreading further. He appealed for more donations.

Mount Kenya was hit by a similar fire at the same time last year following a prolonged drought.

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