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Santa Cruz Mountains 'Saved By The Rains'

Herb Fellow

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Malvern, St Elizabeth - Rains finally came last weekend, putting out the fires atop the Santa Cruz mountains. But the people of Elgin on the steep south-central slopes of the mountain, just below Malvern, need only take a deep breath to experience the acrid taste of burnt vegetation.

Indeed the visual evidence of burnt land is all around. For sure, the memories won't go away in a hurry. "Is only God that save us," said Enid Hendriks, a retired teacher of "bottom" Elgin, whose 83-year-old husband Cyl Hendriks, a former parish councillor for the Malvern Division and Mayor of Black River is confined to bed.

She recalled last week Tuesday how she said to herself, "Lord, we going to be roasted alive" as she watched the fire rage through the vegetation above her house, in the process blocking the road - the only escape route for herself, her husband and her immediate neighbours.

"The fire move sneaking like mongoose," she said, as she indicated how it raced through the cinder-like dry grass and under-growth. "Everything look normal and then you realise the fire is right there," she said.

Several visits by the under-equipped, over-worked St Elizabeth Fire Department assisted by residents using bush to 'beat the fire' helped but only in a limited way, since the blaze remained alive in inaccessible areas of the difficult terrain only to threaten again once the constant breeze picked up strength.

Residents suggested that the fire's hunger for the "dry grass" and scrub perhaps saved them, since it burnt its way around - rather than through - houses and concrete structures. They told of the constant rush to take goats and other animals to safer ground.

Pimento, a major traditional cash crop in the Santa Cruz mountains, was hit hard, they pointed out. The long drought - with very little rain since December - and the unavailability of irrigation water meant there were few vegetable crops in the ground.

At the grocery shop and bar at the centre of Elgin, farmers wondered if they would be compensated for their burnt pimento trees. One young man in a faded 'Portia' shirt said that on Friday, Agriculture Minister Chris Tufton had visited "low-land people" in the community of Big Woods at the foot of the mountain, promising compensation for farmers who had lost their crops to fire.

He laughingly suggested that party politics would be a determinant. "Down deh a green people area... nobody nuh business wid wi up yah," he said to chuckling agreement from others.

But it was also pointed out that representatives from the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) had passed through the district to assess the damage and had indicated that farmers should come to the office in Santa Cruz to make claims.

"That a waste of time," said one young farmer. "After Hurricane Dean mi go mek report fi get fertiliser... an all now...," he said, brushing his hands together dismissively. Inevitably, the discussion turned to the source of the fire. Residents of Big Woods had charged that the low-land blaze started when narcotics police set ganja fields alight.

And the blaze that raced up the mountain over the following days, pushing through the communities of Ivor Cottage and Elgin and threatening other communities in Malvern, including Stanmore, had come from the general direction of Big Woods.

But one farmer, Archie, who said he had gone way down the mountainside, disputed the suggestion that the blaze in Elgin originated in Big Woods. "I go down, low down an I see where this fire start," he said; "is a new fire somebody start - maybe just idle and careless."

Source: The Jamaica Observer
Copyright: 2008, The Jamaica Observer
Contact: Garfield Myers, Editor-at-Large South/Central Bureau myersg@jamaicaobserver.com
Website: Santa Cruz mountains 'saved by the rains' - JAMAICAOBSERVER.COM
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