Cutting-edge technology and sophisticated statistical analysis are becoming the norm as Fire Protection Associations refine the art of preparedness and surveillance. When SA Forestry magazine visited the Zululand FPA at their HQ in Kwambonambi on a Green day in June, all was quiet on the ground, but there was a lot of activity taking place in the ops room.

Technology and data analysis helps fire fighters Trevor Wilson
Forest inferno: a large fire on a DWAF plantation in Manzangwenya, north of Lake Sibaya, in 2003. (Photos: Trevor Wilson) Zululand Fire Protection Officer Trevor Wilson.


A bomber drops a load of water mixed with fire retardant to douse a fire in the St Lucia area, 2005. Bomber pilots are highly skilled with at least 1000 hours’ crop spraying experience behind them. Despite all precautions, fatal accidents occur occasionally. Fatal crashes in 1991 (Midlands area) and 1999 (Swaziland) were both due to structural failure of the aircraft due to extreme turbulence – both pilots were bombing near the head of runaway fires.

The ZFPA has 12 cameras mounted on towers that provide high res visual imagery of 180 kms of coastline from Mtunzini to Hell’s Gate (just south of Hluhluwe), and about 40 kms wide.

The cameras cover 360 degrees and beam their images into the computer network in the ops room, where they are watched day and night by a team of operators working eight-hour shifts. The software monitors the visuals of every camera and alerts the operator of any changes which could signal a fire.

The operator can manipulate the cameras to scan the plantations from almost any angle to get a closer look at what’s happening on the ground.

FPA members are required to inform the ops staff of all controlled burnings, so unplanned fires are detected quickly. The software makes it possible for the visual imagery to be overlaid on a GIS-generated map which means the exact compartment in which a fire is burning can be identified. Additional layers on the map will tell the ops room the history of that compartment, when it was last harvested etc so the anticipated fuel loads can be determined.

This information makes it possible for the FPO to contact the forester in charge of the compartment, and mobilise an appropriate response with minimum wastage of time and money.

Another layer of the map shows the proximity of boundaries such as rivers, railway lines and roads, which is where the firefighters will concentrate their efforts on stopping a fire should the initial attack fail.

Comprehensive statistical data gathered by Zululand Fire Protection Officer Trevor Wilson provides a history of fires and their causes, and the corresponding weather conditions that contributed to the fire conditions. This web of information makes it possible to predict when and where fires are likely to occur so that the FPA can be prepared.

For instance, Trevor knows that during the first half of the year there will be many fires started accidentally by uncontrolled honey gatherers who use smoke to pacify the bees before they rob the hives.

“Honey season starts in February and coincides with the flowering of the Eucalyptus trees. We know from the stats that many unplanned fires will occur during this season, and we can even tell you where and at what time of day they are most likely to occur,” he said.

“We’ve had 441 fires in Zululand since the beginning of the year, and 90% of them have been honey hunting fires,” said Trevor.

Interestingly, there have been very few fires in SiyaQhubeka St Lucia Forests over the same period as there is a 2.5 metre elephant fence around their plantations. This control of access is limiting the free range of the honey hunters and the fires that are caused by their method of smoking the wild bees out of their hives. A common method is lighting a bundle of green grass and blowing the smoke over the hive. After the bees move off the comb the grass is dropped on the forest floor and the smouldering embers can flare up into open flame and cause a fire.

Although most forest fires are started by people, occasionally nature intervenes.

“In September 2005 we had a huge lightning storm in Zululand, and we had 90 confirmed fires within half an hour, just before dark, and we basically burnt down because we ran out of resources right from the start,” remembers Trevor. “We fought the fire 24 hours a day for 10 days straight, with zero injuries. Trees are important, but not as important as human life, so with us safety is paramount.

“The ops room is a Command and Control/Incident Command centre, and we can mobilise all the resources that we have here and the resources of FPA members in the area to fight a fire if necessary,” said Trevor. The ZFPA has two bombers and a spotter on standby, and the Zululand Inland FPA has the same. A Working on Fire crew is stationed at the ops centre to provide ground support.

Published in May/June 2007



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