Intense bush fire in heart of Amboseli

Wed, 2009-09-30 20:42 by hcroze · Forum/category:
Firefighting in Ol Tukai Orok KWS and local residents join the fight ERC the next evening

A small but intense fire occurred on 26 September 2009 in the heart of Amboseli in that special area of Phoenix reclinata palm trees known as Ol Tukai Orok (Maa language for 'place of dark palms'), where we have had the Elephant Research Camp (ERC) since 1975.

No one was injured; no animals were seen to be harmed; the estimated acreage of palm woodland burnt (from GIS analysis of aerial imagery) was approximately 0.7 ha, only 0.2% of OTO. ATE lost three tents, equipment and staff possessions, and camp staff lost a lot of sleep during the night extinguishing smoldering pockets of embers on the ground. The images speak for themselves; see also a Picasa WebAlbum collection.

ERC camp staff and renovation workers (five men in total) first noticed the midday blaze as they sat around the kitchen having lunch just before two o'clock. Josephat Kiminza, the ATE Assistant Camp Manager who was in charge of the camp at the time, said they heard a 'whoomping' sound and all thought at first it was a group of panicking wildlebeeste being chased by lions. When they got up to look around they immediately saw flames leaping up the 10-metre emergent palms between the Maasai Camp Assistant's tent and the gents' long-drop toilet, some 30m from the kitchen. Josephat immediately rang the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) park headquarters to raise the alarm. They then all ran to the site and began the long business of fighting the fires.

Over the course of the following hours, well into the night, a volunteer contingent of some 300 people converged on the site from all quarters of the ecosystem: Serena, Ol Tukai, Tortilis and Mada lodges all sent people and vehicles; KWS arrived with rangers, a water bowser and a front-loader. Maasai landowners from as far as Mbirikani (over 50 km away) poured in to lend a hand. It was a wonderful display of community solidarity, and ATE is immensely grateful for everyone’s help and concern.

There are two curious, possibly related coincidences attendant to the fire.

One is the fact that as soon as the camp staff arrived at the apparent point of the fire's origin (to try to remove items from the Camp Assistant's tent that was starting to burn), they noticed that there was also a fire starting to the southwest, some 50 m across the swamp.

At the same time the fire started, people near Ol Tukai lodge and at Iltalal town, some 40 km to the east, felt a strong earth tremor. We later learned that shortly after that, at 16:26, a significant 5.3 magnitude tremor was officially recorded in Tanzania, centered near Lake Tanganyika (see this USGS site), some 940 km southwest of Amboseli, quite close in geomorphological space. When there was a 'swarm' of strong tremors in July 2007, centred on a point again in Tanzania 90 km to the west, a fire suddenly broke out on the premises of Ol Tukai Lodge (see my 2007 report). Of course, there is no proof of an association, but the coincidence of more than one fire breaking out at the time of tremors in nearly the same place makes it worth noting. There could, for example, have been a surge of static electricity within the subsurface soil layers, associated with the seismic activity, that somehow took light inside the tent and across the swamp.

I flew to Amboseli the following morning. The fire scene was also visited that morning by KWS staff. The KWS team (some of whom had helped fight the fire) interviewed all personnel who were on-site when the fire broke out. Individual reports all matched: there was no-one at the place where the fire started; it appeared to begin spontaneously. None of the men smokes.

An electrical failure can be ruled out as the camp inverter system (donated by WCN through the good offices of Steve Gold and the WCN Solar Project) has a double safety system, with a circuit-breaker box on each tent and a central overload cut-off at the inverter control unit. The slightest overload or short circuit causes the tent to be isolated.

Fires along with animal feeding have always been major modifying factors in savanna ecosystems. It is likely that the Phoenix palm is fire-resistant and that this palm forest vegetation type has been subjected to episodes of fire throughout history (see references). The role of the palms in alternating with Acacias as major vegetation features perhaps following rainfall and groundwater cycles needs further study.


Langevelde, F. V., C. A. D. M. V. D. Vijver, et al. Effects of fire and herbivory and the stability of savanna ecosystems. Ecology 84(2): 337-350.

McClanahan, T. R. and T. P. Young (1996). East African ecosystems and their conservation. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Norton-Griffiths, M. (1979). The influence of grazing, browsing and fire on the vegetation dynamics of the Serengeti. Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem. A. R. E. Sinclair and M. Norton-Griffiths. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

McPherson, K. and K. Williams (1998). Fire resistance of cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto) in the southeastern USA. Forest Ecology and Management 109(1-3): 197-207.


Fri, 2009-10-02 21:36 by Donna

Well, this loss is just too bad. Had the static electricity manifested itself elsewhere in the area, perhaps there would have been nothing to burn. The palms was such a nice area. I am sending a small donation and hope others will also pitch in to help with the cost of tents, etc.

Camp Fire

Tue, 2009-10-06 14:39 by cmoss

Donna, Thanks so much for your loyalty and concern. Your donation will help us rebuild.

Camp Fire

Tue, 2009-10-06 22:21 by Donna

You are welcome. When the tent sites are finishes, it would be lovely to see pics of them and the new john.

Many thanks, Donna,

Sat, 2009-10-03 05:11 by hcroze

...for your quick and generous response. Very much appreciated. The fundis are already on-site fixing the roofs and sewing new tents, and your donation will help move them along. All best.


Sat, 2009-10-03 22:28 by Donna

Thank you, Harvey, for the good news. That is grand.

Take heart from great response

Fri, 2009-10-02 14:16 by Anna Martinsson

I can't add much more then what Keith has already mentioned, this year is turning out to be a real "annus horribilis" is so many ways..
I am glad no one was hurt (something that in it self looks quite remarkable) and that you can take so much heart from the great response in the amount of people that came from such distance to give their helping hands, I am truly sorry for all the personal loss and the devastation of the communal tents and equipment. Surely the tide must soon turn !

Burning Ring of Fire

Thu, 2009-10-01 10:18 by Keith

Thanks, Harvey, for the v thorough report on the recent fire in the area of the Elephant Research Camp. Thank goodness that no one was hurt and that the extent of woodland habitat affected was so small. The limitation of impact was in no small way due to the overwhelming outpouring of fire-fighting assistance that the camp team received. As you said, such a response by ATE's many friends is very gratifying and welcome, and is a tribute to the position that ATE has established for itself in the heart of the Amboseli community.

This is certainly something that Amboseli as a whole and the elephant project in particular did not need, in this time of hardship. Let's hope that the rains come very soon now, as we turn the corner into October. The palm woodlands will recover very quickly but, more importantly, the animals both wild and domestic will have something to keep them alive.

Well done, everyone. Hang in there.

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