Island on Fire

Sometimes it seems like the whole island is on fire these days: a warehouse in Cole Bay, the hillside above French Cul-de-Sac, piles of yard waste, and St. Martin’s Olympic torch, the Philipsburg landfill. Fire is part of nature—we certainly didn’t invent it. It has also been part of land management in the Caribbean for hundreds of years.

A brushfire sweeps through the hills.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, there is plenty to burn. The island has been working do dispose of years worth of debris generated in a few short hours. The island’s struggle to handle its own waste has been known for years. The current situation merely brings it to light once again. Seeing our garbage in flames is inevitable, but still unacceptable.

Firefighters protect nearby homes.

Our role in brushfires is more complex. Human activity can trigger them, like when a burning pile of yard waste gets out of control. We may also contribute to the conditions that make them more likely. Healthy forests help retain rainwater. Cleared hillsides grow back with grass and wild tamarind seedlings that turn into tinder during the dry season.

In the aftermath of a hurricane, dead trees and shrubs have the potential to make brushfires more severe. The areas that burn may also be more critical to native animals that have already suffered loss of life and habitat.

Fire may also rob the island of valuable resources. Dead trees are an important part of the ecosystem. They are food for mushrooms, termites and the larvae of longhorn beetles. A rotting log can be as full of life as a living tree.

The larvae of longhorn beetles eat dead wood.

The termite feeds the lizard and the lizard feeds the Killy-killy. The rebirth of the island will spring from a fallen tree if we let it. On this busy, crowded rock, perhaps we don’t have the time and space to let nature take her course with every trunk and branch. But we should take care when playing with fire, and spare a few logs from the flame.

A slave wall stopped the fire from spreading across the hill.

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