The aftermath of the 2017 Garden Route wildfires.

7 June 2020 commemorates the 2017 Knysna wildfire disaster. In many ways, the risk of a repeat thereof in the Southern Cape remains. How does the COVID-19 pandemic and growing climate change crisis affect the Southern Cape’s readiness for catastrophic wildfires?

“The 2017 Knysna and Bitou wildfire disaster was without a doubt the most devastating of its kind in the history of Southern Africa,” says Cobus Meiring of the Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF).

“With loss of life and a badly-affected local economy, irreparable damage done to infrastructure, businesses, agriculture, forestry and property running into trillions of rand, the Knysna and Bitou fire disaster caused unparalleled ecological havoc in an area of over 20 000 hectares.”

As part of an ongoing debate on the correlation between the consequences of COVID-19 and that of climate change, GREF asked Gerhard Otto, Head of the Garden Route District Municipality’s Disaster Management Centre, if the Southern Cape is today better prepared in the event of a repeat of the 2017 wildfire disaster.

“From a preparedness level the Garden Route District Disaster Management Centre, Local Municipalities, nature conservations entities, forestry as well as regional fire protection associations have, as a collective, ramped up capacity to fight wildfire disaster way beyond what was in place in 2017. Aerial firefighting capacity, clearing of fire breaks and upgraded firefighting equipment, all makes for a better-prepared region dealing with regular and intense wildfire scenarios,” says Otto.

The 2017 Knysna and Bitou wildfire disaster was caused by a perfect storm of climate change, super strong winds, possible human error and the prevalence of large-scale invasive alien plants in the landscape, all of which contributed to the scale and ferocity of the disaster.

“In as much as disaster management and firefighting services are better resourced than three years ago, invasive alien plants still dominate the landscape,” Continues Otto. “The wide-spread prevalence of invasive alien plant stands has the potential to provide the biofuel necessary for a repeat of the 2017 wildfire disaster.

“Landowners, in general, do their best, within their means, to eradicate and control invasive alien plant growth on their land, but the task at hand is a mammoth one, and much more needs to be done in order to achieve a fire-safe environment in the Southern Cape,” says Otto.

Blue gum ablaze during the 2017 wildfire disaster.

“COVID-19 has had a severe and tangible effect on the socio-economic fabric of the Southern Cape and we know that the real challenge the advent of the pandemic is posing, is still nowhere near its true impact. Both COVID-19 and climate change will affect the future of the present-day Southern Cape dramatically. The new normal should no doubt include a rethink of how we manage our environment at all levels, not only for exposure to wildfire risk, but, just as important, the way we manage human settlement, water security and biodiversity conservation.

“As we commemorate the physical horror of the 2017 Knysna wildfire disaster, and now having to deal with the trauma of COVID-19, all stakeholders and communities in the Southern Cape will have to take hands, develop an understanding of what the future will force upon us, and plan ahead for a safer and more secure region,” concludes Otto.

The Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF) is a public platform for environmental management entities in the Southern Cape, and a regional think tank on climate change mitigation and adaption.

Herman Pieters: Senior Communications Officer and Spokesperson: Garden Route District Municipality
Tel: 044 803 1419; Cell: 081 455 5699

Cobus Meiring: Chair of the Garden Route Environmental Forum Secretariat
Cell: 083 626 7619

Related article: ‘Taming the Wildfires on the Garden Route’

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