Kilimanjaro – October 14, 2020


On Sunday afternoon, a fire suddenly erupted on the slopes of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, with high winds contributing to its rapid growth and spread. Investigators recently discovered that it was started accidentally by porters who were using fire to warm up some food for climbers at the Whona rest area, near the popular Mandara and Horombo routes on the eastern lower vegetated part of the mountain (8860 ft./2700 m). The surrounding dry grass and shrubs quickly caught fire. Human accidents with fire such as this, as well as activities like increased land use in surrounding areas and the contributing water and air pollution, are all threats to the mountain’s unique ecology. Fires have broken out on and near Kilimanjaro before. However, according to local authorities, this is one of the biggest ever seen.
Kilimanjaro is home to many endemic (unique to the area) species. Though, thankfully, widespread destruction is unlikely with this fire, even a localized effect could reduce the range of species. The fire has been contained to an area on the eastern side of the mountain where a species of large erica arborea (tree heather) exists. Decades ago, these shrubs reached up to 15 meters tall but, due to climate change impacts like less rainfall and more frequent fires, heights have been reduced to 2 meters. Scientists discovered that fog on the mountain may be the key to the survival of the species, especially during the dry season from May to October. Fog at high altitude leads to condensation of water on the leaves, which then drips down to the soil. Fires make it a lot harder for the fog to form. Thus, less fog means less water reaching the soil which can affect plants and animals reliant on this groundwater on Kilimanjaro.
While this current fire likely will have limited consequences, it is a part of a global trend of larger and more frequent fires. Though some of these fires start by accident or arson rather than naturally, the impacts of climate change – like the drying out of the vegetation – still fuel these fires to be fiercer than normal. This can lead to potentially disastrous outcomes to local wildlife in the future.
photo: U. Horodyskyj