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Author: Working on Fire Programme

( Article Type: Explanation )

Needed by nature or ruthless destroyer?

It’s a hot November day in Rooi Els on the Southern Cape coast. A fire is burning in the mountains above the seaside village, flames hungrily swallowing hectare after hectare of dry fynbos. By late afternoon a strong southeaster wind has propelled the blaze towards several luxury homes on the outskirts of the settlement. By nightfall the fire has swept down the steep slopes and, despite firefighters desperate efforts, leapt easily from the bush to the buildings. By the time the flames are under control, two beautiful, big houses are in ashes. A third house, where the bushy vegetation has been cleared and replaced by a well-kept short lawn, stands untouched by the flames.

Good housekeeping saved that home. A well-maintained ‘firescaped’ garden reduced the fire intensity around the house and provided a defensible zone for firefighters to work in.

Every year in South Africa wild fires destroy thousands of hectares of agricultural land, commercial plantations and buildings, affecting the lives and livelihoods of many. While most fires are started through human negligence, some are part of the natural cycle, which needs fire in order to rejuvenate and survive. Most vegetation types found in South Africa burn periodically – grasslands, savannas and fynbos rely on fire to complete their life cycles.

Yet, as urban development increasingly encroaches into wilderness areas with scant attention being given to accommodating the natural fire regime, wildfires are becoming an ever-increasing and costly problem.
Fire authorities say the responsible management of ‘fire fuels’ dramatically reduces the risk of fire damage, potentially saving millions of rands in lost property. The ferocity of a veldfire is influenced by the weather, the slope of the ground, the amount of fuels, such as long dry grass, woody shrubs, invasive alien trees, fallen leaves or other combustible material available to burn (the more fuel, the more intense the fire) and the chemical composition of the fuel. Fires that affect areas too frequently or that are very intense because of high fuel loads can cause loss of biodiversity and soil damage.

South Africa does not have the same naturally high fuel loads as the forested areas of countries such as Australia and the USA and so does not experience the same scale of bush fire problems. However, fuel loads increase significantly when veld becomes infested with invading alien plants. These ‘aliens’ such as exotic acacias, hakea and myrtle – are faster growing and can create more fire fuel than indigenous plants.
Despite these risks, many homes are surrounded by fireprone vegetation with no effort made to protect the buildings. Homeowners living next to or surrounded by fire-prone veld should reduce the amount of fire fuel for at least 20–30 metres around their house and be prepared for inevitable veld fires. This means clearing the area around a building of bush and overhanging trees. Dry twigs and leaves must be removed from gutters and a roof well sealed. Wooden decks, pergolas and thatched gazebos must be treated with fire retardant and an adequate independent water source, like a rainwater tank or borehole, should be available to fire fighters in case of a blaze.

Farmers and smallholders should have a trained workforce, fire-fighting equipment and protective clothing ready at the beginning of the fire season and take note of fire weather warnings that are issued periodically. Local government agencies are encouraged to undertake deliberate burning under controlled conditions on public land in order to reduce fuel loads that pose a fire risk to residents.

The law demands that landowners clear their properties of invading alien plants, and they can be held responsible if a fire starts on their land and causes damage to neighbouring property. Every house that was burned down in the devastating fires of January 2000 on the Cape Peninsula, was surrounded by invading alien plants.

In densely settled informal settlements, the use of flammable building materials, close proximity of dwellings and reliance on gas, paraffin or wood fuel for energy increases the risk from and frequency of fire, often with devastating consequences.

The Working on Fire Programme (WOF), a two-year-old government initiative aimed at creating employment, developing skills and controlling the damage of wild fires is working hard to create awareness of the risks of poor fire management and the benefits of addressing the problem in an integrated way. Through partnerships with the forestry industry, conservation agencies and local authorities, much has already been done to manage fire in South Africa so that damage is limited and nature can run its course. But there is still a long way to go before wildfires are less of a threat to lives and property.

WOF needs you to play your part!