Foresters and fire protection officers have been saying for months that 2007 would be a bad year for fires in South Africa. Early summer rains followed by dry conditions led to the build-up of in-field fuel loads. Exacerbating this situation were days of extremely high winds which, when combined with the dry conditions, created hazardous conditions.

Fire storms rip through SA Snow dampens fire storms for a while Fire storms rip through KZN Midlands
Shafton base … surrounded by fire Monday night 25 June 2007. Photo courtesy KZN FPA. Snow in the Midlands put a damper on the Red Monday fires … temporarily.   Fires blaze through KZN midlands. Photo: Hugo Pienaar.

 

Their predictions have proved to be frighteningly accurate. In the six weeks between 25 June and early August, some 77 000 of the 1,2 million ha of plantations in South Africa have been damaged by runaway fires, mainly in KZN and Mpumalanga. That represents 6,4% of the national plantation resource.

Swaziland has also been hard hit, and between 17 000 and 20 000 ha of plantations around Piggs Peak have been damaged by fire.

The fires have killed more than 20 people, including firefighters, destroyed croplands, buildings and equipment and hundreds of farm animals.

The impact on biodiversity and the environment has also been severe. The fires were so hot in some places that nothing survived. When the SA Forestry magazine team visited some burnt compartments in the Midlands after the June 25 fires, there were no signs of life in the path of the fires, which also left the topsoil exposed to the elements.

Forestry SA Assistant Director, Roger Godsmark, said that fires in 2007 have caused damage to forests estimated to be around R2 billion, and another R6 billion to downstream processing. He described the losses as a ‘catastrophe’ for the industry, which is now engaged in massive salvage operations. These will soften the blow somewhat as salvaged timber that has been cleaned up is being accepted by the mills.

Another consequence of the fires will be long term shortages of timber in South Africa, with downstream processors like sawmillers feeling the pinch of dwindling and increasingly expensive raw materials which are the lifeblood of their businesses.
Red Monday

In KwaZulu-Natal the fire season started early – around mid-May – but then on Monday, 25 June, the dire predictions of the experts turned into reality as several huge runaway fires burnt thousands of hectares of plantations, and left death and destruction in their wake.

In the Midlands the day started out with a fire danger rating of 58, a moderately dangerous ‘Yellow’ day. But by mid-afternoon it was gusting and a 91 ‘Red’.

Simon Thomas, KZN Fire Protection Association’s operations manager, who is based at Sappi’s Shafton plantation just outside Howick, had been watching the weather patterns and knew that trouble was brewing. He put out a fire warning on East Coast radio on the Sunday afternoon, a day before ‘Red Monday’.

Simon picks up the story: “At three minutes past 11 in the morning, the Curry’s Post fire popped, plus we got a report that smoke was spotted at Pinewoods on the Bulwer road. We despatched two bombers and a chopper to the Curries Post fire, and called two bombers back from a fire at Greytown to help.

“Then the Hilton College fire started, and we swopped the chopper for two bombers because it would be more effective.

“By this time all the aircraft were low on fuel and so we brought them in for refuelling, two here at Shafton and two at Oribi airport in Pietermaritzburg. While we were still busy refuelling, the Pinewoods fire popped.”

There were five fires that day, and the fire fighters managed to control two of them. Simon continues:

“The Curries Post fire was almost under control, then the wind switched and picked up speed just before dark. At 8 pm that night the fire crossed Curry’s Post road into Shafton. We recorded a wind speed of 101 km/h at 11.30 that night.

“The fire storm hit at 1 am, and burnt right through the Shafton fire protection base. One office caught fire and one of the bombers was fire damaged, plus there was wind damage to the other aircraft. By 2 am it was all over.

“The next day we had to have all the aircraft repaired, and by 2 pm we were back fighting fires, but luckily the wind had calmed down,” said Simon.

That evening it started raining and dampening the fires down. This was followed by a huge cold front with snow falling over the Drakensberg and some parts of the Midlands.

The ‘Red Monday’ fires destroyed some 25 000 ha of farmland with losses estimated to be close to R1 billion. A fire engine driver, a fireman and a local community member died in the inferno. Countless farm and wild animals caught in the pathway of the runaway fires were also destroyed.

Worst hit were Sappi, who lost some 5 500 ha of plantations at Pinewoods and Shafton, while a number of private growers were also affected. Sappi announced that damage to their plantations in KZN amounted to about $5 million.

Fires also destroyed vast areas of farmland in Boston, Winterton, Bergville and Newcastle on the same day.

Red Friday

Just four weeks later, on Friday 27 July, terrible weather conditions across the eastern part of the country triggered another spate of deadly runaway fires in KZN, Mpumalanga and Swaziland. These fires were more deadly, killing at least 22 people including six firefighters, and leaving hundreds of people homeless.

Worst hit areas in KZN were Winterton and Paulpietersburg where the fires were fanned by 100 km/hour winds and seven people were reported killed.

Mpumalanga the fires raged through Piet Retief, Graskop, Sabie and Lydenburg, damaging some 25 000 ha of timber plantations and two sawmills. Komatiland Forests reported losses of about 11 000 ha of planted areas. Spitskop, Tweefontein, Bergvliet, Brooklands and Blyde were the worst affected by the wild fires.

Business Report stated that Mondi chief executive David Hathorn said Mondi had lost between 10 000 and 13 000 ha out of the 269 000 ha of plantations it owned during the end of July fires. Plantations around Barberton and Paulpietersburg/Piet Retief were hardest hit.

By Tuesday 31 July, the fires were still raging in Mpumalanga with additional firefighters brought in from the Western Cape by Working on Fire. Some 37 500 ha were lost in the Sabie area alone.

York Timber reported that around 6 000 ha were affected by the fi res, though in many cases the trees were scorched and could still be processed into timber. That represents around 7% of their plantation resources. Fire also damaged the group’s Driekop sawmill.

NCT members lost around 3 000 ha in the Sabie area, while Peak Timbers in Swaziland reportedly lost some 18 000 ha.

Is there more to come?

The 2007 fire season is not over yet, and farmers throughout the country are praying for rain to dampen down the plantations that have survived the first two rounds of runaway fires. Meanwhile, forestry contractors have never been busier with requests coming in almost daily for them to help growers fell their burnt timber.

When responding to these requests, contractors need to take into account the additional wear and tear that the soot and dust of burnt plantations will have on their equipment and vehicles – especially chainsaws.

Following the felling, many growers will be setting up sprinklers at the depots to clean the felled timber and to keep it wet. All in all, a lot of hard work lies ahead as growers mop up and prepare their compartments for re-planting in spring.

Published in July/August 2007



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