Fire management under the spotlight

June 30, 2011

The Seventh Fire Management Symposium organised by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the SA Institute of Forestry was held in Pietermaritzburg recently. This popular event was well attended by foresters and fire protection personnel from far and wide.

Mulching reduces fire load

No need to burn - mulching reduces the fuel load in a clearfelled compartment. Horst Hellberg and Steve Glutz examine the material left behind after mulching on Horst's Vryheid farm.


Dealing with the media during disaster fires
The keynote address was given by Evelyn Holtzhauzen of HWB Communications, who provided a number of useful tips on how to deal with the media during crisis situations, like big fires. Evelyn provides PR and media communication services to Working on Fire, among other clients, so he has plenty of experience in this field.

  • Create friendships in the media – develop a relationship with the newspapers in your area throughout the season. It makes it easier to talk to them in times of crisis. Never talk to them 'off the record'.
  • Don't say 'no comment' to journalists who approach you for information. If you do they will just get the information they require from someone else – or they will piece an article together from scraps of info that they pick up here and there. Rather be prepared in advance and know exactly what information you are going to give them.
  • Set up an incident commander – one person in your organisation who can talk to the press during a crisis. Take the time to inform the media of what is going on so they don't go around the corner to come up with their own story.
  • Prepare some positive information in advance so you have something to give them when you need to deflect the focus from the current disaster.
  • If the reporter gets it wrong in the article, don't phone up and rant and rave. Rather offer to give him/her the correct information – build the relationship.
  • Considering the speed that information can be communicated via electronic/ social media – you need to react to disaster incidents fast to counter potentially damaging articles, Facebook comments, tweets, videos etc.

Strategies to improve integrated fire management through FPAs

Luke Radebe, Manager of the Fire Protection Associations Unit at DAFF, provided some background on the department's strategy regarding integrated fire management and FPAs.

He said that 30.6% of South Africa has extreme veld fire risk, 31.3% has high risk, 11.7% medium risk and 26.4 low risk. Government is focusing on promoting the establishment of effective FPAs in the extreme and high risk areas, which includes the forestry areas.

"We need FPAs because we need cooperation between stakeholders to prevent the spread of fire," he said. There are currently 227 FPAs registered in South Africa. He stressed that membership of FPAs is voluntary for private landowners, but is required by organisations that are managing state land.

Luke urged FPAs to submit annual reports to his department regarding the fire situation on the ground, as they need good information if they are to provide appropriate support.

One of the key benefits to landowners of belonging to an FPA is the presumption of not being 'negligent' until proven otherwise. He said that there are also major cost saving benefits for members through co-operation and pooling of resources.
"If you are a manager of state land and you do not belong to an FPA, you are inviting problems," commented Luke. He said that there are currently many lawsuits being pursued because managers of state land were not local FPA members.

Hazard and risk mapping

Malcolm Proctor of DAFF, Free State, says his department is compiling a comprehensive hazard and risk map of the province, which makes strategic planning possible. It provides info on fire hotspots, fire incidences, intensity and frequency of past fires, fuel loads, social and economic risk factors, fire-fighting capacity, the presence of FPAs, and more.

Sustainability of fire insurance
Ruth Bezuidenhout of SAFIRE explained that the partnership between the client, SAFIRE and the re-insurers is crucial in the provision of sustainable plantation fire insurance.

"We as the insurer must add value to the process," said Ruth. "We need to understand forestry, the timber salvage markets, we need to be adaptable to cater for land claims and small growers. Our board is made up predominantly of timber growers, and we are committed to long term relationships."

At the same time, the client's willingness to be part of the partnership is important, and the commitment of the re-insurers to be long term partners is essential for sustainability.

"Never admit liability and admit to negligence for the spread of fire from your property to a neighbour's. If you are not an FPA member, it is much harder to prove that you were not negligent," said Ruth.

A landowner has an obligation to use all resources available to stop a fire that starts on his/her property, and to notify fire prevention authorities and all neighbours in case the fire spreads.

How altitude affects FDIs
Charl Brummer of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has done a study in the Berg to see how altitude affects FDI.

During his research he found that the little berg (average 1 500 metres) burns more intensely than the lowlands (1 000 metres), while the high escarpment (3 000 metres) burns with less intensity than the lowlands.

Temperatures in the low, middle and high Berg are generally lowest at 8 am, highest at 12 noon, and drop again towards evening and overnight.

In the mornings, the humidity is high, at midday humidity is lowest, and towards evening, it starts to rise again. So the most dangerous time to burn is around midday.

Air cools two degrees per 300 metres rise in altitude. This changes the humidity and fuel moisture.

Wind speed shows the same pattern, blowing hardest at midday. As you get higher, the wind speed increases.

The benefits of mulching
NMMU Saasveld lecturer Tiaan Pool made an interesting presentation on a recent study into the effects of mulching on fire behaviour.

The trial was run on recently harvested Pinus patula and Eucalyptus macarthuriii compartments, using five different slash treatments: mulch, broadcast, windrow, chopper roll, and removal of slash.

The plots were burnt under similar weather conditions, and Tiaan measured the rate of spread of the fire, flame height, fire intensity and other variables.

Fuel loads: the mulched compartments had the least fuel load.

The fuel in the mulched compartments contained significantly more moisture than the fuel in other treatments.

Mulched compartments had the lowest flame heights when burnt, and the lowest rate of spread.

Fire temperatures were lower in the mulched P. patula compartment compared to all the other treatments; in the E. macarthuriii compartment the temperature of the fire in the mulched area was the second lowest (the inter-row treatment was lowest).

When deciding which treatment to use, foresters need to consider the cost as well as risk and environmental factors such as fuel, topography, weather and fire risk in the area.

Tiaan said that the cost of mulching is around R3 000/ha vs R250/ha for burning slash. However, several members of the audience suggested that R3 000 for mulching is too high, and R250 for burning slash is too low if you take all the related costs into account.

In conclusion, Tiaan said that his trials showed that fire behaviour in mulched compartments is less intense than the other treatments, with lower flame heights and cooler burns, and recommended mulching as a preferred slash management treatment in P. patula and E. macarthurii from a fire risk point of view.

He also noted that mulching speeds up decomposition, and only 40% of the original amount of fuel remained in mulched compartments eight months after mulching.

Role of FPAs
Bobby Hoole, Fire Protection Officer for the Lions River FPA, gave a presentation on the role of FPAs and the relationship between landowners and wildfires. He emphasised the fact that in areas where there is a registered FPA, all landowners must abide by the rules of the FPA, whether they are members or not.

"If the FPA says 'no burning', it applies to both members and non-members, i.e. to all the landowners," said Bobby.

International Wildfire Conference
Johan Heine of WoF concluded the symposium with a few comments on the success of the Fifth International Wildfire Conference held at Sun City recently, which was attended by 547 delegates from 73 countries.

Disaster fires
Fire consultant Ben Potgieter attributed the continued occurrence of big 'disaster fires' to the following factors:

  • climate change
  • lack of cooperation among stakeholders
  • poor fuel load management
  • lack of training
  • lack of resources.

"We in the industry are good at launching the initial attack, but we need to convert that to an extended attack," said Ben.
"We need to have a better understanding of weather behaviour. We must base our readiness on local weather conditions and monitor weather changes during fire suppression activities, because it's normally weather that turns a small fire into a big fire."
He said there are major problems with the selection and training of fire crews. Fire boss training is inadequate, and there is not enough use of simulated fire training. "It's time government assisted FPAs with training," said Ben.

He said working together within FPAs is critical, as is the development of risk reduction programmes at FPA level.

"We put all our focus on putting the fire out – but we need to focus more on fuel load management."

In this regard, we need to develop strategic buffer zones at a regional level as ordinary firebreaks will not stop big fires.
Pre-suppression planning must include detailed response plans for high FDI periods, structured communication plans, and roles and responsibilities worked out to the finest detail. We need more training to equip staff to deal with disaster fires, and the capacity to turn initial attack into extended attack.

Grasslands need fire to maintain biodiversity

Grasslands need fireCare must be taken to mimic nature when burning grasslands like these if you want to conserve biodiversity.


Dave Everard, Sappi's Divisional Environment Manager, gave a fascinating presentation on the burning of grasslands on forestry estates. This is important because forestry has converted grassland to plantations, so the open grasslands remaining on forestry estates need to be managed carefully to conserve their biodiversity.

Dave said that fire is required in grassland landscapes; it should be preferably uncontrolled, quite frequent, and late in the season (early spring). He said that ideally, the frequency of grassland fires should vary, and they should occur at different times of the year.

This clashes with plantation managers, who want no or infrequent fires, and preferably in the early season.
Dave provided a few key pointers on how best to manage fire in grasslands:

  1. Fire is a natural and important ecosystem driver, so grasslands must be burnt. Grasslands that don't get burnt lose their productivity.
  2. Flora and fauna have different levels of fire tolerance – so don't burn all the grasslands at the same time every year.
  3. Species need habitats to survive. Fire must support and maintain ecosystem processes. Good grassland generally has good basal cover.
  4. Don't burn too frequently – annual burning knocks out fire-intolerant species in the system and causes grasslands to become homogenous.
  5. Don't burn too infrequently ... you will get a woody species invasion and less productive grasslands with less basal cover.
  6. Don't burn too early – autumn burning reduces productivity because the soil is exposed for longer and more erosion occurs.
  7. Don't burn too late – after the onset of growth, it reduces sward productivity and impacts on many plants that flower at that time. Preferably burn in late winter or early spring.
  8. Not all habitats and species can take fire – so there are places where there should be no fires, e.g. in kloofs, natural forests, etc. There should be variation in burning if biodiversity is to be conserved.

How do we apply these principles into a plantation landscape?

  • Principle 1 is easy if you have large grassland areas, but it's more difficult in small areas.
  • Principle 8: in general, this principle can be applied relatively easily on plantations.
  • Principles 3-7: you have to have flexibility and variation. Set objectives for different areas. Draw up an integrated fire plan for the whole plantation, taking into account risk mitigation and biodiversity conservation.

In general, don't burn for a specific species ... variation in burning patterns is best for general biodiversity.

What about climate change? Fire might not be enough to keep grasslands as grasslands i.e. temperature plays a big role. Increasing temperature increases the growth of woody vegetation, so fire management will become even more important in future.

"Through good burning practices, we in forestry can maintain good plantations and good grassland conservation," concluded Dave.

Published in June 2011

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